Iraq, which was, until the first Gulf war, the second-largest oil-exporting country, is now importing petrol for the first time in 60 years. Iraqis are now paying exorbitant prices for a commodity that only a few months ago was cheaper than bottled water.
This is, of course, far from being the only cause of distress to an already mentally and physically battered population. Nearly four months after the war ended, services are appalling. The electricity supply is intermittent, and there is a serious water shortage. With temperatures up to 50C, this is an intolerable situation.
In 1991, after the first Gulf war, although electricity generating stations, water purification plants and telecommunications were almost totally destroyed, the Iraqis — despite sanctions — worked hard to rebuild them.
At the time I was chief executive of Iraq's North Oil Company, as the Iraq Petroleum company was called after nationalisation in 1972. In the six weeks that the offensive lasted, and in the chaos that followed, the oil installations were extensively bombed and looted. The computer centre, telephone exchanges, workshops, laboratories and company stores had been wrecked, and technical drawings destroyed. The powerhouse, water-processing plants, degassing and pumping stations had all been damaged. All the offices had been trashed: paperwork had been burned, and every removable item taken. Even the washbasins and taps, electrical sockets and lights had been removed from the walls. Of 586 light vehicles, only six remained.
On April 2 1991, I received a hastily scribbled note from the minister of oil in Baghdad. NOC had to produce, by April 15, 200,000 barrels a day of crude oil and pump it to Baiji refinery in order to supply petrol to the Iraqi people to celebrate Saddam's birthday on April 28. To have questioned the order would have been dangerous; failure would incur punishment. But that was not my primary motivation: in my view, the provision of petrol was a service to the Iraqi people. It would mitigate their hardship.
So I called our first postwar board meeting; it was held sitting outside my office, as there was no furniture. The morale of the company's 10,000 staff was abysmal; on top of enduring bombing and looting, they had had no water, fuel or wages since the war started. I decided to spend the first week boosting morale, not with fine words and patriotic speeches, but through tangible improvements to the life of our employees.
The priorities were obvious: nothing could be done without electricity to operate the water pumps, telephone exchanges and so on. But, first and foremost, the men needed money, so it was announced that any employee who arrived at the company gates would receive five dinars daily on top of his wages. There was no money in Kirkuk as the banks had been looted, so I sent the finance manager to the central bank in Baghdad to bring back 3m dinars, an enormous sum then. Word quickly spread and the next day several hundred men reported to work. In a few days the workforce was back to normal.
I formed many committees, each under a highly capable man to whom I gave sheets of paper, blank apart from my signature. One of our problems was lack of transport: cars were allocated for four hours at a time. Shortage of petrol was another headache: before the war I had hidden a 40,000-litre petrol tanker in the hills west of Kirkuk, and in order to produce petrol before this ran out we managed to revive an old refinery column, which had last been operated in the 1950s. The quality was bad, but it met our need for fuel.
On April 4, the head of electrical engineering told me that, by the end of the day, he would be able to operate one of the turbines. Shortly after sunset, there was jubilation in the 3,000 oil company houses as their electricity came on, and the streetlights went on. The sight of these areas, lit up after nearly three months of darkness, raised the spirits of the town. The next morning water reached the houses, and people streamed out of their houses to visit relatives, bathe and wash clothes.
In that first week, we were also assessing how to go about the repairs. Before pumping the crude oil to the refineries, we had to recommission a degassing station. Then impurities had to be removed by heating. The works were so extensively damaged that we decided to use a cold-stripping plant. The nearest one was beside Shurau degassing station, so this site was ideal for both operations. We also needed pipelines to connect all parts of the system, which meant a great deal of repair and re-routing. The same specialised people who had worked on the services were carrying out these repairs.
The morale of the men was rising and they tackled the rebuilding with enthusiasm. It rose even higher when, after sunset on day five, we lit the flare of the degassing station. The red glow in the Kirkuk sky, which had been missing for several months, told people that the oil company was operational again, and life was taking on some semblance of normality.
On day 14 we started pumping; within three months we were producing 75% of pre-war capacity.
The time taken to provide the basic necessities of modern life was vital in raising morale. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to lead such men, drawn from all Iraqi areas, ethnic groups and religions. They are true Iraqis, skilled in their professions and devoted to their country.
Many of those men, and many others like them, are still in Iraq. They remain capable, as they were in 1991, of planning and executing the necessary repairs to our battered country, if they are given a free hand. There is no need for foreign companies to take control. Iraqi oil revenue should go to Iraqis, who should then be left in peace to set their country to rights.
Ghazi Sabir-Ali is the former chairman and managing director of the North Oil Company, Kirkuk. This article was written in collaboration with Valerie Sabir-Aliwww.guardian.co.uk/Print/0,3858,4724279,00.htmlE-mail this article