By Ahmed Rasheed
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq is barely capable of protecting its vital oil infrastructure and could falter if its oil police do not get enough manpower and sophisticated security equipment soon, a senior Iraqi security official said.
Brigadier Moussa Abdul-Hassan, chief of the south oil police, said the expansion by foreign oil companies of operations in southern oilfields could surpass the ability of the oil police to offer protection in the future.
"With the expansion of oil work in the south, from drilling hundreds of oil wells to building oil facilities, we need to boost the number of troops and update our equipment to be fit for the job," Hassan told Reuters in an interview.
"Now we are barely controlling the situation, but for the near future, I mean next year, we will have new oilfields starting massive work, especially in Majnoon and West Qurna 1 and 2, and that expansion will definitely increase our responsibilities," Hassan said.
Emerging threats against oil infrastructure represent a challenge to Iraq prepares to take full control of security ahead of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by year-end.
The protection of Iraq's oil reserves, among the world's largest, is crucial to rebuilding after years of war and economic sanctions as it pursues plans to become a top producer once again.
Militants have targeted Iraq's oil resources this year.
At the Doura refinery south of Baghdad, which has a capacity of 240,000 barrels per day, troops defused four make-shift bombs earlier this month.
In February, al Qaeda militants attacked Iraq's largest refinery in Baiji, killing four workers and detonating bombs and triggering a fire that shut down the operations for two days. Security forces foiled another attack days later.
In early June, bombs were planted atop four crude depots of the Zubair 1 storage facility in the south, setting ablaze one tank.
"Having sophisticated security cameras and monitoring systems, this breach could have been avoided," Hassan said in the oil hub city of Basra. "We are still using old methods of protection."
"For the future , we are seeking to boost oil police numbers to cope with building up oil work in southern fields, so we need more trained policemen, sophisticated equipment. Now the equipment we're using does not meet global standards," he said.
Hassan did not cite numbers. Major General Hamid Ibrahim, head of the oil police, told Reuters in March that the 40,000-member force needed to add 12,000 more officers.
Hassan said the police need thermal cameras and bomb detectors installed around fields, installations and pipelines. Iraq has about 7,000 km (4,300 miles) of oil and gas pipelines.
"We are also lacking helicopters, which have maximum importance in securing our sprawling oil pipelines and export facilities," Hassan added.
Asked if the police had received any recent tips that armed groups might target oil facilities in Basra, Hassan said: "We are not waiting for security tips to respond. We consider Basra oil facilities under a constant threat and primary target for saboteurs."
Hassan said the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by December 31 would have no impact on the work of the oil police, who operate independently.
"The work we do is not dependent on coalition troops and we are currently coordinating with the Iraqi army in securing oil facilities in the south," he said.
Hassan said the force had successfully compromised smuggling operations in Basra, a constant challenge.
"Smugglers were making holes in the export pipelines, installing valves with small pumping motors to steal the crude," he said. "We decided to use tough measures by burning the trucks we seized and it worked in deterring them."
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Jim Loney)