The center of this fight is taking place in the Iraqi city of Bayji, located to the west of Kirkuk. Bayji is particularly strategic, because it is home to the largest functioning Iraqi oil refinery, with the capability of refining more gasoline than both of the other two Iraqi refineries combined. Oil from the fields near Kirkuk in Northern Iraq flow west to the city of Bayji, where it is either exported by pipeline to Turkey or refined into gasoline to meet the needs of the people of Baghdad and northern Iraq.
Despite regular bombings of the pipeline to Bayji, the ability to actually distribute the gasoline to the Iraqi people appears to be the weakest link in the supply chain.
On December 21st the Bayji refinery closed after insurgents threatened truck drivers transporting petrol. The nature of the threat wasn't clear, but the seriousness or extent of the threat was credible enough to make the local truck drivers walk off the job. Driving gasoline tankers is one of the most hazardous jobs in all Iraq, so it is perhaps no surprise that in this case, the Iraqis seem to be the only ones willing to take the risk, or that the cost of that risk is starting to be passed on to the Iraqi people. The Iraqi Government recently announced an increase in the price of gas -- both for cars and for heating houses -- that has led to a 200% increase in its cost and has sparked angry protests nationwide.
To make matters worse, the shutdown of the Baiji refinery has also jeopardised supplies of electricity across the north of the country. The Oil Ministry said the shutdown was costing the government approximately $20 million a day. The fuel cuts have had a severe impact on the Iraqi government too, with some Iraqi police putting out a no-patrol order in order to conserve fuel.
Ten days after the shutdown at Bayji, the plant at Bayji reopened. The government beefed up security at Baiji this week and ordered trucks to start running again. Despite this, apparently only 40% of Bayji's truck drivers returned to work.
The Iraqi Oil Ministry spokesman told Reuters the amount being transported initially was "very little and limited." This situation changed on January 4th, however, when a large, 60-tanker convoy escorted by Iraqi army forces in armed vehicles, attempted the trek to Baghdad.
The vehicles were attacked enroute by Iraqi insurgents with machine guns and rocket launchers. Reports on what happened next are decidedly mixed. One report says that 19 or 20 of the 60 vehicles were destroyed, while another said that only a handful were destroyed -- along with several Iraqi Army vehicles -- but that many others were shot up. The attack was apparently prolonged and followed the convoy, despite US efforts to intervene. By nightfall, Iraqi police said there were still isolated clashes on the road and that at least four people in the convoy had been killed — a driver and three members of the convoy’s security team.
The next day, an Iraqi spokesman from the Bayji refinery announced that the refinery was closed again, after drivers had once more walked off the job. The refinery has stopped all refining of petroleum, as its reserves are at maximum. The official's name was not released, as he feared that militants might kill him for speaking to the media.
To make matters worse, one of the ways in which the US has been responding to these kind of attacks has been through airstrikes and other methods of attack which are not as reliable in targeting the enemy, but which reduce their exposure to danger. A recent airstrike in Bayji accidentally hit the wrong house, killing an Iraqi family. Presumably, this strike was meant to target some of the same Iraqis who have been threatening the convoys.
The impact? Lines for gas in Baghdad are reportedly up to 2 miles long. Violence has forced private gas stations in Basra to close, leaving only government stations in operation. Meanwhile, Iraqi black marketeers are importing gas and selling it at prices even higher than the newly deregulated prices.
The battle of supply for Iraq's gasoline may very well be the modern-day equivalent of the Battle of the Atlantic during WWII, where U-boat wolfpacks swarmed on targets and nearly forced Britain to surrender. Considering the ratio and extent of their losses, I would be greatly surprised if Iraqi truck drivers continue to accept these kind of risks much longer, which mirror the tremendous losses taken by the British merchant mariners of the '40s, who, though civilians, bravely performed their ordinary jobs under extraordinary circumstances. So, who's going to drive the trucks now?!
Well-established blogger and former DoD counterterrorist John Robb points out that these attacks are a kind of distributed swarm attack which is easy to coordinate, yet hard to prevent. Sure, swarming is a painfullly hip tech buzzword, but the guy has a point and access to some good information, so...