ARBIL: Sheltering in a bomb-proof safe room in a heavily-fortified office in Baghdad is the new reality for a senior Western oil executive who runs one of Iraq’s oilfield mega-projects. Intensifying violence and car bombs have already forced him to restrict his movements and now, security experts say, he is under even closer watch from Shiite militias that may hit out at Western targets if Washington attacks neighboring Syria.
“Every time there’s a car bomb, we go into lock down mode,” he said. The Shiite groups, closely linked to Iran, are also tracking his colleagues working 500 km away in the giant southern oilfields clustered near Basra – a Shiite-dominated city that Iraqi officials say is a no-go zone for Western oilmen. “The risk is of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said a senior oil industry source.
So far, turmoil in Iraq has not hit the operations of international oil companies, or deterred them from boosting output and turning Iraq into OPEC’s second-biggest producer. But Baghdad’s oil revival has stalled due to bottlenecks at ports, pipelines and the customs office. “Baghdad will make every effort to contain the fallout, but if we were to lose anyone, there would be huge pressure to withdraw – and we don’t want to do that.”
An Iraqi Shiite militia group has threatened to attack US interests in Iraq and the region if Washington strikes Syria, whose President Bashar Al-Assad is backed by Tehran. Long accustomed to hostile environments, foreign executives from BP, ExxonMobil, Eni, Total and Royal Dutch Shell do not scare easily. But Iraqi security sources say Exxon, particularly at risk because as an American firm, is taking no chances, re-basing most of its workforce from the southern West Qurna-1 oilfield project to Dubai until tensions ease.
“Exxon has zero-tolerance,” said a source at a security company operating in Iraq. “Exxon has pulled out just about everyone.” The company declined to comment. Despite the possibility of military action against Syria still alive, top executives visit Iraq. Paolo Scaroni, CEO of Italy’s Eni, was in Baghdad at the start of the month – and senior management is staying put in the Iraqi capital. “The others are reviewing measures and emergency response plans, but there are no plans to evacuate,” said a Western diplomat.