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Iraqi workers return after oil fields retaken from Kurds

© AFP / by Sarah Benhaida, with Marwan Ibrahim in Kirkuk | An Iraqi oil employee checks pipelines at the Bai Hassan oil field west of Kirkuk after it was retaken by government forces.

BAI HASSAN (IRAQ) (AFP) - 

Turfed out three years ago by Kurdish forces, Iraqi oil workers are donning their overalls and inspecting equipment as they look to get down to work at installations snatched back by Baghdad.

Iraqi forces this week reclaimed a string of major oil fields around the city of Kirkuk that the Kurds seized in 2014 during the chaos of the Islamic State group's rampage across the country.

The fast-paced Iraqi advance -- and the precipitous Kurdish collapse -- saw the central government recapture a key source of revenues and dealt a body blow to Kurdish dreams of independence after a controversial referendum last month.

At a sprawling refinery, a group of employees from Iraq's state-owned North Oil Company told AFP they were "conducting an administrative inventory to understand the condition of the equipment" after three years under Kurdish control.

Technicians looked for any damage, but there does not to be much as the installation was seized without much of a fight.

- 'Test run' -

When Kurdish peshmerga forces took control back in 2014 of the Bai Hassan and Havana fields, officials from the state firm were ordered to pack up and head to their offices in Kirkuk.

Now the company is looking to pick up where it left off as quickly as it can and "hopes to restart production Saturday evening or Sunday morning", a representative told AFP, declining to give his name.

"This will be a test run to restart the refineries and the gas compressors that should allow us to reach an output of 50,000 barrels a day," he said.

That is only a fraction of the overall riches reclaimed by Baghdad. The six fields taken back around Kirkuk should produce some 340,000 barrels daily.

While getting production restarted should not prove too big a problem, he insisted, the major issue ahead will be how to pump the oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan for export.

From the 1980s until the arrival of IS in 2014, Baghdad was sending up to 400,000 barrels of black gold to Turkey each day through a 970-kilometre (600 mile) pipeline via the Faysh Khabur border crossing.

But then the jihadists seized almost of all of the territory that the pipeline crossed -- and a rival Kurdish pipeline constructed in 2013 became the main route carrying oil abroad from Kirkuk.

Now -- although government forces have pushed back IS to claim most of the lost ground -- looting and fierce fighting have left the Iraqi pipeline inoperable.

Even if workers manage to fix the pipe itself relatively quickly, remedying damage done to the pumping stations is a far greater task, said the North Oil Company representative.

It could take technicians two years just to procure replacement parts that are only manufactured abroad.

- Appeals to oil firms -

Even ahead of the seizure of Kirkuk, the authorities asked three state-owned firms to "come up urgently with a mechanism to repair and renovate" the pipeline running to Turkey.

Now, in a bid to give its battered finances a boost as fast as possible, Baghdad has also appealed to British giant BP to "quickly make plans to develop the Kirkuk oil fields".

The Iraqi oil ministry signed a consultancy contract with BP in 2013 to help the state-owned North Oil Company to develop the Havana and Baba Gurgur fields.

But it was never implemented as Baghdad lost control of the fields to Kurdish forces the following year.

And as it looks to get its own facilities up and running again -- the central government looks keen to lay down new rules in Iraq's oil sector.

After its seizure of Kirkuk, Baghdad on Thursday condemned a $400-million (340 million euro) production sharing agreement the Kurds inked with Russian giant Rosneft, insisting it has to okay all deals from now on.

by Sarah Benhaida, with Marwan Ibrahim in Kirkuk

© 2017 AFP