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Using Oil as Political Currency: What ISIL’s Capture of the Baiji Oil Refinery Means for Iraq

A worker turns a valve at the Shirawa oi

On June 24, ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured the Baiji oil refinery located 200km north of Baghdad, outside of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. As ISIL continues to march towards Baghdad, many are concerned over the changing control of Iraq’s vast supply of oil and the effects on Iraq’s political climate. Refined oil products are integral to ISIL and other militant groups’ use of transport vehicles. It can also be used to trade in the weaponry and ammunition market. Iraq is currently the fifth largest producer of oil in the world, with most Iraqi exports going to the United States and Asia.

Although Iraq’s oil minister, Abdul Kareem Luaiby, claimed that the recent violence in Mosul and Northern Iraq would not affect exports or stability in the Southern, the Baiji refinery does supply a third of Iraq’s refined fuel. Furthermore, The International Organisation for Migration reported that 500,000 individuals had been displaced from Mosul by “Armed Militant Groups”, specifically ISIL. According to the United Nations, Iraq’s neighbour Syria is already home to the world’s largest population of displaced refugees, numbering a staggering 6.5 million.

ISIL has captured a number of US-made military vehicles, including Humvees, which were originally provided to the Iraqi army. The latter army abandoned these vehicles when fleeing Iraq’s Northern areas. ISIS has already begun transporting the newly found equipment back into Syria, crossing at key border towns they had previously captured and currently occupy.

The United Nations also estimated that a “very minimum” of 1,000 civilians had been killed in the three-week Iraqi conflict. An additional 300 were killed in Southern Iraq due to car bombs and other acts of terror. The majority of Mosul residents attempted to relocate to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. This displacement has caused an influx of automobile traffic and residents into cities like Irbil. According to Mosul refugee Mahmud Nuri, this influx also included members of the armed forces who “threw away their weapons, changed their clothes, abandoned their vehicles and left the city”.

According to John Kerry, we are currently seeing “a critical moment” for Iraq’s future; as the crisis continues to develop, it is uncertain whether the country will remain united or see itself dismantled into ethnoconfessional controlled regions.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Monday. Both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani were present. Kerry promoted the idea of a united Iraq, urging Barzani to work with al-Maliki and the existing Iraqi government. Barzani countered, “we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq”, and said it was “very difficult” to imagine the country united in the future. Kirkuk, a city of high economic significance and with very close ties to Kurdish culture and history, was captured by the Kurds shortly after the violence in Mosul caused the Iraqi army to flee. Some believe the city has enough oil supplies to allow the Kurds to fully separate from Iraq, the potential revenue possibly outweighing the payments currently being made to the Kurds by pro-united Baghdad. In a recent CNN interview, Barzani ominously stated “the time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”

The Kurds currently have one million barrels of crude oil stored off the Moroccan coast, ready for purchase. According to CNN’s Tim Lister, the most likely buyer seems to be Israel, although it is unclear whether they would use it for domestic purposes or re-export it to other markets. Lister feels Israel may see an ally in Kurdistan since both populations are minorities in the area. The price for one barrel of crude oil currently sits around USD 110 ⎯ an incredible income source for the Kurds. The Iraqi government does not support such sales and has threatened international buyers, such as Austria’s OMV, with lawsuits.

As the crisis in Iraq continues to develop, it is uncertain whether the country will remain united or see itself dismantled into ethnoconfessional controlled regions. John Kerry has stated that this is “a critical moment” for Iraq’s future. Last week, NATO organised a two day meeting to discuss the future of Iraq and Ukraine. However, NATO’s Secretary General has maintained that despite NATO’s heavy involvement in the region between 2004 and 2011, the Alliance would remain uninvolved from the situation for the time being.

David Hunter
David Hunter is currently finishing an Economics degree at York University after transferring from the Opera/Voice-Performance program at the University of Toronto. He was awarded the Stanley L. Warner Memorial Prize for his research paper “The ‘Brain Drain’: Exploring the role of educated women in International Labor Mobility”. David currently runs the Hunter Group (www.huntergroup.ca), a hybrid Economics and Design firm focused on creating unique solutions for clients. He revitalised the Model NATO club at York University and was nominated by committee vote as one of the Chairs at the Washington D.C Model NATO Conference in 2010. David’s more recent projects include a commercial architecture firm as well as an internationally recognised Canadian media personality. His interests lie in Behavioural Economics, Neuro-marketing, and International Trade.