Iraq’s government agreed on 2 August to begin negotiating with Washington to keep US troops in the country beyond the December 2010 deadline to train Iraq’s security forces. Much of that training will be aimed at protecting Iraq’s oil infrastructure.

Some 43,800 US troops are currently operating in Iraq, with the primary mission of training, assisting and equipping Iraq’s own security forces. Washington has offered to leave up to 10,000 troops to continue training Iraqi forces.

A final extension agreement has not been settled and given the deep political divides with Iraq’s government, Baghdad may still insist the US military leave by the end of 2011 as required under a 2008 security agreement. This would leave Iraq to deal with its ongoing security issues alone.

Although the long-term trend is downward, the head of Iraq’s Oil Police warns that terror group Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s main objective for 2011 is to disrupt economic development by damaging pipelines, storage tanks and refineries.

Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs, Hussein al-Shahristani went further, describing an attack on Iraq’ largest refinery at Baiji in the north of the country in February, as “the most dangerous moment since the fall of the Baathist regime”, according to the US’ Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).

While it took only three weeks to restore full production, Al-Shahristani said the attack could have had far graver consequences, as only a third of the explosive devices planted by the attackers actually detonated (MEED 6:3:11).

Following the Baiji attack, the Iraqi Army assumed security from the police. The Iraqi Army has a nominal strength of almost 200,000 soldiers, combined with 30,000 men from the Interior Ministry’s Oil Police. Nonetheless, the refinery was again forced to shut down on June 24 after a gas pipeline explosion near the main operating units. It remains unclear if the explosion was due to equipment failure or sabotage.

Underscoring the continued threat to the oil sector, in early June, Iraq security forces defused four more bombs planted at the Doura refinery in Baghdad.  But the insurgents were more successful just days later when on 5 June they succeeding in destroying an oil-storage tank in al-Zubair in southern Iraq. The bombs were placed at four tanks, but only one exploded causing significant damage. This was enough to briefly halt production at the field, operated by Italy’s Eni.

It is not only insurgent attacks which present challenges to international oil companies working in Iraq. According to SIGIR, it was only the intervention of Basra’s provincial governor, which averted work stoppages by state-owned South Oil Company workers angry about differences between their pay and that of those employed by international oil companies.