DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Iraq and Syria have agreed to speed up reactivation of an oil pipeline from north Iraq to the Mediterranean after Damascus helped Baghdad over security, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Wednesday.
A contract to study the pipeline between the Kirkuk oilfields and Syria’s Banias terminal has been awarded to a Russian company and the issue was a focus of talks during a visit by Zebari to the Syrian capital, the minister told Reuters.
“The Russian company is already performing surveys, but they’re going slow. We discussed this and agreed that the work needs to speed up,” Zebari said in an interview in Damascus. “There is a positive and healthy change in ties between Iraq and Syria, mainly due to more security cooperation to help the Iraqi government achieve stability,” said Zebari, a Kurdish politician who lived in exile in Syria.
The pipeline, which last operated before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, would expand Iraq’s limited export options by delivering oil to Syria’s coastline.
Syria, faced with declining oil production and isolation by the West, is eager to earn hard currency from transit fees.
An Arab oil executive said Syrian companies were gearing up to compete for projects to repair the pipeline on the Iraqi side and had received assurances that Baghdad would devote resources to ensure their work was secure.
Iraqi governments since 2003 have struggled to export oil through another pipeline linking Kirkuk to Turkey as it has come under repeated sabotage attacks.
In recent months this pipeline has seen more reliable flows, adding to the size of Iraq’s exports, most of which flow through its main oil terminal in the southern port of Basra.
U.S. forces bombed the Kirkuk-Banias pipeline, which was built in the 1950s, during the invasion. Before that, Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein had used it to help defy United Nations sanctions during the last years of his rule by exporting 100,000-200,000 barrels per day, less than the pipeline’s 300,000 bpd capacity.
Iraqi and Syrian officials had discussed the pipeline previously but political tension kept plans to restart it on paper. Syria opposed the invasion that removed Saddam from power and only recently made statements toward recognising the legitimacy of the Iraqi government.
The two countries share a 600-km (375 mile) desert border that is used by anti-U.S. rebels bent on suicide bombing and other attacks in Iraq, according to Washington.
Zebari said a crackdown by Syria has lowered the number of infiltrators, who mostly come from North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic countries from 70-100 a month to 30. “We have field indications that the number of infiltrators have gone down sharply due to serious security measures by Syria at airports and border areas,” said Zebari, who was one of the most vocal Iraqi critics of Syrian policy toward Iraq. “We now feel there is a desire to develop relations. This is why you see me in Damascus. Security cooperation is key. We’re open and ready to improve ties with Syria on all levels,” Zebari said.
Syria, which has links to various Iraqi groups opposed to what they describe as the American occupation of Iraq, including the banned Iraqi Baath Party, calls for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal as a pre-requisite for national reconciliation.
Zebari said it was unrealistic to ask U.S. forces to leave Iraq any time soon, although negotiations between Baghdad and Washington on the status of the troops will start next year. “Our security forces are not ready,” Zebari said. “Definitely there would be a long-term U.S. presence. The duration of their stay will be decided by the outcome of talks and the authorization given by the Iraqi government.”