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Ingenuity, Elbow Grease and Cash Help Creaky Refinery Come to Life

Jury-rigged Basra plant fires up for first time since war began, a move military officials hope will alleviate shortages and prevent unrest.

May 01, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — The twin crude-oil flare towers at the Basra Refinery shot flames more than 15 feet into the sky Wednesday, signaling that southern Iraq's most vital oil facility was back on line for the first time since the war began. But getting the plant up and running was nothing short of bizarre.

To deliver senior Iraqi refinery executives brave enough to run it, a local sheik-turned-temporary governor drew up a detailed business plan.

To get more than 2,000 other employees back on the job, the British Army's 7th Armored Brigade doled out cash it had commandeered from the Basra Central Bank, paying salaries and fat bonuses. And to light one of the two 600-foot towers, British Army Chief Warrant Officer Keith James fired more than 60 tracer-fire and flare-gun rounds from the ground.

Somehow, the plan came together. When the jury-rigged refinery creaked, cranked and groaned up to half its 140,000-barrels-per-day capacity just before midnight Wednesday, it was a watershed moment.

"The people were so happy when we ignited [the towers], they danced in the streets," said Ebrahem Thaer, a 20-year veteran of the Basra Refinery who is now its acting director. "Everybody needs the fuel. Fuel means light. Without it, there is only darkness."

In addition to processing crude oil into diesel that runs the region's power plants, the Basra facility produces gasoline and kerosene. Since the war began, millions of southern Iraqis have been suffering through blackouts and hours-long lines at gas stations. Alleviating shortages, military officials say, is important to preventing unrest that could undercut the U.S.-British presence here.

"The flare tower is like a beacon. It can be seen for miles around, and it shows life is coming back to normal," said Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of restoring Iraq's oil industry.

When the Basra Refinery goes into full capacity Saturday, its production will far exceed Iraq's other two major refineries, which are running at a third or less of their capability, the Corps says. Although restoring the Basra plant is a key step in reviving what was a 2.5-million-barrels-per-day prewar petroleum industry, the facility's production will be limited strictly to local consumption for several weeks because the oil fields are still beset by problems.

Damaged Pipelines

There are 19 pipeline breaks in the system, seven of which are on fire, Crear said. Americans working for Texas-based Halliburton Co.'s KBR subsidiary, formerly Kellogg Brown & Root -- which won a contract potentially worth $7 billion to make emergency repairs to the Iraqi oil system -- are battling to fix the breaks every day, he said.

The 29-year-old Basra plant, which was partially destroyed by coalition forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is a patchwork of cannibalized equipment and shoestring Iraqi innovation. It desperately needs spare parts. More than $200 million worth were ordered by Baghdad before the war, but they were not delivered because Iraqi government bank accounts have been frozen.

Fashioned from Czechoslovakian equipment and a 1960s-era British design, the facility will have to be replaced within five years, according to experts with the British Army's Royal Engineers 516 Specialist Team, which used its innovation and sheer guile to get the facility running again.

When team leader Maj. Mark Tilley and the rest of his bulk- petroleum engineering crew arrived at the refinery 10 days ago, they found a group of Iraqi workers, led by Thaer, guarding it. To protect the plant, the Iraqis had even engaged in a bit of sabotage, hiding such key parts as ignition engines and fuses.

Tilley's first step was to clear out all the Iraqis. Then, his team began assessing the plant's most urgent physical needs. Meanwhile, the British commanders who now control Basra and much of southern Iraq worked with a local council that had taken shape in town to nominate potential plant managers.

The council named Jabbar Leaby, who identified himself as a "consultant" to the state-run Southern Oil Co. before the recent war, to head things up. It recommended Thaer to serve as the refinery's "start-up strategic director." British intelligence then investigated and cleared them, and Crear signed off on the new management.

Request to Workers

A local radio station and the new managers called on the refinery's 3,500 workers to return to their jobs. This week, about 2,500 of them did.

Asked how he got so many back, Tilley said: "It's simple. We paid them."

According to Tilley, the 7th Brigade of the British Headquarters 1st Armored Division got to the Basra Central Bank before the looters did. The troops broke in, took the money and sequestered it in the Basra palace now serving as the British military headquarters.

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