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US bars access to oil ministry, power plant
Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

by Habib Battah,

While many Iraqis began returning to work, oil ministry employees were wondering why US forces, heavily guarding their offices, barred them from re-entering the building on Saturday.

It was also unclear why a Baghdad power station had apparently been booby-trapped by occupation troops.

Life appeared to be edging towards normal as looting subsided, shops began to re-open and traffic picked up on Baghdad's streets. US troops were seen directing many former state employees, including police and civil servants, back to work on Saturday.

But Massar Farouq, a telecommunications engineer from the oil ministry, said she did not understand why US troops prevented her from returning to work.

"All the employees are here, but as you can see, US forces are preventing us from entering the building," she said.

As many as 100 oil-industry employees loitered around the ministry complex, as soldiers stood guard behind barbed wire barriers.

Unlike other state buildings, the Ministry of Oil escaped the bombing unscathed, and has been heavily guarded by American troops since invasion forces entered the capital.

Meanwhile, employees of a major Baghdad power plant were also bewildered by the presence of several explosive devices planted around the Jameela facility, which supplies one third of the capital's electricity.

Trip-wire detonators could be seen strung across doorways inside the building, and packs of ready meals (MRE), trademark of western military forces, were visibly scattered across the floor.

Plant director Nasser Hussein expressed serious concern over the work stoppage. The landmines, he said were intended to control rather than destroy the premises.

"We are ready, but we have one problem. The mines, which the Americans have planted to control the Jameela plant, will hamper the distribution of electricity in all parts of the city and will deny the citizens this service."

Measures taken at Jameela and the oil ministry were likely intended for temporary security purposes, said Texas University professor of government, Clement Henry. He ruled out any form of oil site occupation, but thought it likely that US companies would gain access to many contracts.

The problem, he said, lies in the fate of the oil ministry's dealings with other states, such as France, China and Russia. With the US now calling for an end to sanctions, Iraq's former trading partners are not likely to give up previous claims.

"Will their contracts be respected, or will a new Iraqi oil minister, dictated by the US, have a different view?" asked Henry, co-author of Oil in the New World. In any case, potential political disagreements could lie in the days ahead.

"Its going to require a lot of international politicking"

That the ministry building remained intact, perhaps symbolically, proves the importance of the issue.

"It's amazing how the US was able to protect to oil installations but not cultural installations," Henry said in a reference to the widespread looting of a Baghdads museums.

Meanwhile Bush administration officials are said to be considering the construction of as many as four long-term military bases in the country. Senior officials, quoted in the New York Times, made no secret of the impact such a move would have on Iraq's neighbours. "It will make them nervous," said one official referring to Syria and Iran, both the subject of intense recent US criticism.

"It's just part of the great imperial plan of [Deputy Defence Secretary] Wolfowitz," said Henry.

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