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Tue 24 May 2011 01:24 PM

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Iraq oil police frustrated and under-equipped

Safety of Iraq's oil infrastructure's is crucial as country tries to rebuild more than eight years after US-led invasion

Iraq oil police frustrated and under-equipped
OIL POLICE: Oil infrastructures safety is crucial as Iraq tries to rebuild more than eight years after US-led invasion (Getty Images)

Iraqi Police Major Fawzi Rasheed knows he is charged with a vital task in protecting his country's vast oil industry, pipelines and tanker lanes.

But he is a frustrated man. His oil police unit is under-equipped, some men protect refineries without weapons, recruits train with plastic rifles and officers say they get to fire off just a few rounds on the training range.

"We were hoping our training would be based on modern methods and equipment but were surprised the military training we're getting is simple," said Rasheed, whose unit protects oil tanker convoys at the huge Baiji refinery.

"The real problem facing us is that we haven't got weapons to take on terrorists and smugglers."

Iraq has some of the world's biggest oil reserves and has signed deals with foreign oil companies to boost its production capacity to 12 million barrels per day by 2017, which would make it a close rival to global oil giant Saudi Arabia.

Protecting its oil infrastructure is crucial as the country tries to rebuild more than eight years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, and as Washington prepares to withdraw US troops at the end of this year.

The oil refinery in the northern town of Baiji, a former al Qaeda stronghold, is Iraq's largest and a clear target for a weakened but stubborn insurgency.

In February, al Qaeda militants attacked the plant, killing four workers and detonating bombs that touched off a raging fire and shut down its operations for two days. Just days later, Iraqi security forces foiled another attack after finding a bomb inside a storage tank. It was defused on time.

Iraqi officials say they are ready to take full control of the country's security when the remaining 47,000 US troops withdraw by December 31. Bombings and attacks still occur daily but Iraq says its military is can contain any internal threat.

US troops have acted in an advisory role since Washington ended formal combat operations in August.

But some units such as the air force and navy remain under-developed. Iraqi's oil police chief, Major Gen. Hamid Ibrahim, warned in March oil facilities were at risk without increasing manpower and training for the oil police cadre.

Italy's paramilitary police, the Carabinieri, part of a NATO training mission in Iraq, are instructing the oil police to protect four main refineries, nine regional refineries and around 4,300 miles of oil and gas pipelines.

At Camp Dublin in Baghdad, the Carabinieri run a seven-week basic training course as well as a trainers' course with 20 different classes including weapons training, self-defence and crime scene preservation.

On a recent visit to the camp, Italian trainers were running recruits through Karate-like punching moves in a gym, while officers in a classromm taught police finger-print techniques.

The Italians have trained around 500 oil police since starting courses in October last year.

Major General Claudio Angelelli, deputy commander for NATO Training Mission-Iraq, said the courses aimed to give Iraqi oil police tactical training and also develop co-ordination within units so they can work with other teams.

But he said training needed to continue beyond this year.

"I think within this year, we can continue to train them, but their capability will not be enough to continue by themselves," Angelelli said.

"We have studied this situation and I think that the Iraqis will need to be supported for an additional two years."

The NATO training mission in Iraq is due to finish at the end of this year although Angelelli said he expected Iraq to ask for training to continue beyond 2011.

He acknowledged there was a gap in weapons and equipment but said it was up to the Iraqi government to cover shortfalls.

But some recruits, many of whom are already trained police officers, said NATO needed to make courses more advanced and tailored to Iraq's security situation, especially the requirements of countering attacks on oil installations.

"NATO must go on the ground and examine our work then give us the training, which is consistent with what we face. Their training is not realistic," said Lieutenant Haider Shakir, part of a team protecting pipelines in the oil hub Basra.

"We need to learn to try to catch the terrorists."

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