When the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shia militia entered a key oil processing facility in Iraq’s north to retake it from Kurdish Peshmerga forces last week, the installation was deserted and its alarm bells ringing.
Engineers and workers on the facility, which processes oil from two major fields in the Kirkuk area of predominantly Sunni Kurdistan, had fled, fearing the military advance.
“No one wanted to risk their life and decided to evacuate as stories about the militia and Qassem Soleimani were spreading fast,” said a senior Kurdish oil industry source, referring to the head of foreign operations (Quds Force) for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards. The source declined to be identified.
Iraqi engineers arrived to the sound of alarm bells warning about system malfunctions, prompting them to immediately shut down wells. Now, they need passwords and expertise from their Kurdish counterparts to restore oil output fully.
The loss of control of Kirkuk oil fields is likely to starve the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of vital oil revenue and cause deep concern to global trading houses such as Vitol and Glencore, which have granted the semi-autonomous government billions of dollars in loans against future oil sales.
Baghdad’s lightning military offensive into northern Iraq came after the KRG held an independence referendum last month.
Maj Gen Soleimani, one of the most influential military figures in the Middle East, with reach in Syria and Lebanon, issued tough warnings to Kurdish leaders ahead of the Iraqi military advance.
“We went inside the oilfield facilities after Kurdish workers fled and we found overalls and safety boots thrown on the ground,” said an engineer from the Baghdad-run North Oil Company (NOC), who declined to be named because he was ordered not to speak publicly about the issue.
“It seems that workers took them off and escaped very quickly.”