An Iraqi worker walks past at the Dora Oil refinery
As war-ravaged Iraq ramps up crude oil production to reach an ambitious goal of a nearly five-fold increase by 2017, it is scrambling to face the parallel challenge
of protecting oil facilities.
The Oil Police, with the wide responsibility of guarding every aspect from fields and personnel to refineries and petrol stations, is struggling with shortages of equipment and funds, as well as the manpower specified in the goverment's five-year plan.
"We are short of about 12,000 police officers," complained General Hamid Ibrahim, the head of the police force.
He currently commands a force of 30,000 men, 8,000 of them low-paid contracted workers without the higher wages and benefits of tenured employees.
"We are forced to hire contract workers because the finance ministry has not provided the funding to hire tenured employees," he told AFP.
Sabah Hussein puts his life on the line five days a week as a contract worker with the force, earning 255 dollars a month. He drives a cab on weekends to make ends meet.
The disillusioned 21-year-old, who has been with the force for three years, said his pay is half that of a tenured employee. He said he was awaiting tenure, which would double his pay, but was not optimistic.
"I hope to get tenure, but I think they are only promises," he said during an inspection of a pipeline passing through Nahrwan, an agricultural area 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) southeast of Baghdad, and part of a nationwide network that stretches for 7,500 kilometres (4,700 miles).
"If I am hurt on the job, my contract provides no compensation," he complained, pointing to a route overlooking the Diyala river where three of his colleagues died in an attack about three months ago.
Iraq's declared oil reserves of 143 billion barrels are among the world's largest, and crude generates 90 percent of revenues.
The government plans to boost the current modest production of 2.6 million barrels-per-day to six million bpd in 2014 and 12 million bpd by 2017.
But an International Monetary Fund report last month expressed doubts over Iraq's ability to reach that goal, saying production was more likely to reach about five million bpd by 2017.
General Sabah al-Saidi, who is responsible for oil security in eight provinces in central Iraq, explained that the force relied on patrols to inspect facilities like pipelines because it did not have equipment such as sensors or cameras, or helicopters for air surveillance.
"We do things the old-fashioned way," he quipped.
In certain remote regions, the force has to rely on the army to help carry out its protection tasks. Without helicopters, the force also cannot quickly send reinforcements to such areas.
One of the force's responsibilities is to ensure that oil is not being secretly siphoned from pipelines. But Saidi said that thieves sometimes used sophisticated methods of punching into the ducts and laying down underground hoses that could stretch several kilometres (miles), and were difficult to detect without modern equipment.
The oil police was created in the 1950s, but disbanded after the 2003 US-led invasion together with all other security services, amid fears they were manned by men loyal to the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Attacks against vital oil installations have declined in recent years, as Iraq struggles to recover from the aftermath of the invasion, including an al-Qaeda insurgency that targets vital installations such as oil facilities.
But attacks still take place.
An attack in late February halted production at the Baiji refinery, Iraq's largest, for five days. Early last month, another attack shut down a vital export pipeline connecting to the Turkish port of Ceyhan for six days.
The oil police are recruited from communities close to the facilities, in order to involve local people in the protection of the country's precious resource.
But that did not stop the Baiji refinery attack north of Baghdad, which Ibrahim indicated took place with inside information.
Oil force units are stationed in concrete shacks at regular intervals alongside pipelines.
They go for patrols to ensure the pipes remain secure.
"Without patrols there would be theft," said Sabri Ghafar, a colonel with the force. "Oil is a very precious resource."