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Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Heat, equipment woes delay Iraqi repairs

PIPELINE SABOTAGE One American engineer described the situation as a logistical nightmare, made worse by the dilapidated state of the country's oil infrastructure


The gash in a critical pipeline that saboteurs struck four days ago remained submerged in a vast lake of crude oil on Saturday, defying attempts at repairs that would get the oil moving again to tankers in the Persian Gulf.

In southern summer heat of 49?C, with great plumes of flames and smoke at refineries dotting the horizon of a parched and desolate plain, workers at times moved so slowly that they seemed to be mirages.

The pace frustrated American military and private engineers who were there to drain the lake so that repairs could proceed.

"It's just really a logistical nightmare to work here," said Michael Doherty of the Army Corps of Engineers, a resident engineer on an oil infrastructure restoration in the south, who had led a convoy of pumps, lights and cranes across nearly impassable roads.

"You don't have it, you can't go back for it," he said.

At the same time, suspicions grew here that the attack on this pipeline last Tuesday, and on another large pipeline the day before, were in effect inside jobs, explosions so carefully placed in the barely comprehensible web of Iraqi pipelines that only someone with expert knowledge could have directed the work. The attacks shut down exports from Iraq's southern oil fields, which are by far its most productive.

"They must have had help from someone who knew very well where the pipelines were, said a civil engineer with the Southern Oil Co who would not give his name.

Asked whether the help would have had to come from someone now active in the company, the engineer said, "Perhaps."

The engineer said that repairs on the second sabotaged pipeline were more advanced, with 90 percent of the work completed. He said that it could begin carrying oil within a few days.

The daylong ordeal produced little more than plans to begin pumping the lakes the next day, and it underscored the dilapidated state of Iraq's oil infrastructure.

One reason the strikes were able to shut down the system is that valves in the pipelines, meant to isolate breaches, are broken down, ineffective or missing.

"I think it's probably normal in Iraq because the designed systems weren't very good," said Lyle Nelson, a Halliburton engineer who arrived late in the day to lend advice on the pumping project.

The day began at an Army Corps base near the Basra Airport -- the large city of Basra is less than 6.6km away -- where there are loads of equipment for the operation and sport utility vehicles with engineers and managers.

The convoy took until just after noon to get started, and then it encountered the jouncing, potholed back roads leading to the breach.

Around 1:15pm the convoy arrived at the breach. About 35 Iraqi workers were laboring slowly in the heat, many wearing blue jumpers with SOC in white on the back -- for Southern Oil Co.

By 2 pm, an earth mover had begun pushing dirt across the canal of oil to form a dam.

The idea was to isolate the breach, then plug the pipeline with inflatable balloons called stopples. But word soon came over a radio that no stopples for pipelines this large could be found in Iraq or in the region on short notice.

The dam took about an hour to finish, and Iraqi workers gradually sucked oil from one pit that looked like a swimming hole.

The pipeline -- but not the broken section -- was exposed below, as oil seeped out of the surrounding soil and again accumulated in the bottom of the pit.

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