Foreign land mine clearance firms were banned temporarily from working in Iraq at the end of March, hampering efforts to clear oil and gas fields operated by international oil companies (IOCs) as they seek to raise oil production.

UK-based security firm, G4S is one of several companies given a stop order from the Environment Ministry’s Directorate of Mine Action (DMA) at the end of March, with serious potential consequences for numerous projects, according to sources in Iraq.

The firm had been working on land mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance contracts with Russia’s Lukoil, Kuwait Energy Company and UK/Dutch Shell Group across the south of Iraq. The DMA reasons for the stop order have not been made clear and MEED’s attempts to reach the directorate for a comment have been unsuccessful.

However, several sources familiar with the sector point to corruption at the ministry, which they say is seeking a greater share of lucrative clearance contracts.

“There have been various notices issued to other companies by the DMA in the past few months. And lots of pressure on the clearance companies to donate more to Iraqi land mine victims’ charities, using smoke screens, such as the quality of work, to demand greater payments,” a source close to the industry tells MEED.

In 2008, the Iraqi government estimated there were at least 20 million anti-tank and anti-personnel land mines in place along Iraq’s borders and around oil fields in the south. However, this figure only accounts for mines laid by Iraqi armed forces, and does not cover unexploded ordnance and abandoned munitions.

Four southern provinces – Basra, Missan, Muthana and Wasit – represent 80 per cent of Iraq’s contaminated areas, but are also home to its largest oil reserves and production infrastructure.

Working with the ministries of defence and interior, the Environment Ministry has ambitious plans to clear affected areas by 2018, at a cost of up to $12bn, although officials have said the target is unlikely to be met. The DMA began surveys to identify contaminated areas in 2011.

Several IOCs operating in Iraq met the DMA and security firms on the sidelines of a mine clearance conference in Geneva in early April to negotiate payments and resumption of work.

IOCs had hoped to defuse the situation before taking further action, with plans to go as far as seeking legal action against the DMA. The meeting appears to have been successful, with negotiations leading to G4S resuming its clearance work. Nevertheless, the episode highlights the often fraught relationship between foreign contractors in the security sector and their Iraqi clients.

Baghdad has been keen to impose tough restrictions on private security companies following the departure of US troops at the end of 2011. The Interior Ministry even described their deployment in Iraq as a “giant army of these companies on the streets with their weapons”.

In March 2013, the Oil Ministry issued a directive banning the use of private security contractors at the 12 fields being developed by IOCs across the south of the country.

However, the ban did not last long under pressure from the oil companies, which refused to work without their own choice of security contractor.

“There are often hasty comments and pronouncements from the government, which are later withdrawn after receiving more considered advice. It is only natural that there is a degree of push and pull between using private and indigenous security contractors,” says a contractor based in the UAE.