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Los Angeles Times: Fixing Iraq, and a refinery

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Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times
ECONOMIC LIFEBLOOD: After falling into disrepair and being bombed, the K-3 refinery is getting attention and investment in the hope that it will contribute to Iraq’s future productivity.

Helping restore a 1930s oil facility will take local planning and teamwork.
By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 10, 2008

HAQLANIYA, IRAQ — — The ragged oil refinery in a barren corner of Anbar province looks more like something out of a post-apocalyptic Mel Gibson movie than the centerpiece of an ambitious energy project.

The plant, known as K-3, was built by the British in the 1930s, allowed to slip into disrepair for three decades under Saddam Hussein, then bombed by the Americans in 1991 and 2003.
Now repairing the refinery and increasing its capacity could be the easy part.

The more difficult job, according to U.S.-led coalition forces, is getting the layers of the Iraqi government to cooperate. On top of that, the coalition must help Iraqi officials transform the centralized planning adopted under the Hussein regime that stifled local initiative.

“The whole mind-set has to change. That’s proving to be the longest pole in the tent,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Nicolas Matern, a counterterrorism specialist.

It is a common concern throughout Iraq, where dozens of reconstruction projects, funded in large part by the U.S., are underway. Without Iraqi buy-in, many projects are doomed to flop, officials concede.

“It’s an easy task to trash a country,” said British Lt. Gen. William Rollo, second in command to U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. “It’s bloody difficult to rebuild it.”

Despite its wrecked appearance, K-3, located in the desert about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, is still functional. It shut down three years ago because of squabbling among Iraqi officials. The workforce remained on the payroll, with many living on site.

With the world’s second-largest oil reserves, Iraq is looking at an economic future that’s inextricably linked to questions of how to extract the substance from the earth, how to exploit demand and how to divide the profit and other benefits, such as electricity. Oil is also one of the most volatile political disputes among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.

If K-3 can be revived, perhaps with the help of U.S. contractors, it could provide energy and income for Anbar and decrease the sense of alienation many feel toward the central government in Baghdad.

That alienation is worrisome, they said, because it might provide openings for insurgents seeking to regain control along the Euphrates River corridor.

Some of the power lines streaming from the massive, Soviet bloc-built Haditha Dam toward Baghdad have been destroyed. The chief suspects are Sunni Muslim tribal sheiks who are angry that resources flow from their region to Shiite-dominated Baghdad with little in return.

On paper, the project looks straightforward: Bring crude oil from the Kurdish region in the north by rail or truck to K-3. Refine it into kerosene (for heating oil), naphtha(for road building) or diesel fuel.

Then get the product to a diesel-run power plant at Tahadi or to markets in Syria and Jordan.

A tanker-truck facility and a rail-loading platform are within a few hundred yards of K-3. The rail lines will need repair as will roads and bridges to accommodate 60-ton tanker trucks.

But in a bit of staffing serendipity, two reserve officers from the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment assigned to the area just happen to be oil industry specialists.

Capt. Matt Mayo, an energy consultant, and Maj. Gordon Hilbun, a Royal Dutch Shell executive, have been assigned to the K-3 project. As a technical matter, they said, upgrading K-3 shouldn’t be much more difficult than restarting U.S. refineries hit by Hurricane Katrina.

The Marines brought a variety of Iraqi officials to the area recently to view K-3, the truck facility and the rail station. Among them were an Oil Ministry official who had not been in the area for 15 years, a transportation official who only recently emerged from hiding in Syria and Anbar Gov. Mamoun Rasheed.

Rasheed was buoyant. “Yes, it’s going to happen,” he said. “I want the factory to be running seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

On one point, he was insistent: “We need more security.” In recent weeks, an insurgent attack near the Baiji oil refinery, 125 miles north of Baghdad, killed more than 25 people, and a mysterious fire struck the oil facility at Basra, the country’s southern port city.

There were other concerns.

One of the foremen at the truck facility told U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Martin Post that his workers needed strong clothes and thick boots. Post turned to an aide and told him to make a list.
“We’re going to finish this project together,” Post told the foreman, Abpalwhab Ruef Samarey.

“I hope my god keeps you safe,” Samarey replied.

After the daylong tour, the Marines provided a chow hall dinner for two dozen Iraqi officials. Quietly, the Marines left the room and let the Iraqis discuss the project.

Rasheed, a linebacker-sized man with a similarly outsized personality, fired off orders. “Don’t tell me you have 12 trucks unless you’ve counted them yourself,” he bellowed at a transportation official.

Officials have learned to be wary of displays of enthusiasm that can wane when difficulties arise.

“We need to live this project every day,” Matern said.

In the post-combat phase of the U.S. mission in Iraq, Marines have had to also learn patience. The meetings that led to the gathering of Iraqi officials were drawn out and detailed.

“These people need our help,” said Marine Lt. Col. David Bellon, commander of the 3-23.

“And this beats the hell out of fighting them.”

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