BAGHDAD—Iraq's oil operations remain stable in the face of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran, despite the U.S. State Department's decision Wednesday to remove non-emergency personnel from Iraq.
According to a broad range of industry and government officials—including international oil company executives, leaders of Iraq's state-run oil companies, Iraqi military and intelligence officers, and western diplomats—there has been little reason to change their security assessment around the country's key oil infrastructure, and business is proceeding as usual.
"We don't need to take any additional measures or new steps," said a senior Interior Ministry official. "Our forces are always in a state of readiness... because we have been fighting terrorism for 16 years now."
The U.S. State Department said it will evacuate non-emergency personnel from its embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil because of what Trump administration officials say are new and credible threats from Iranian proxies operating in Iraq. The consulate in Basra was shuttered and staff relocated north last October over similar concerns.
The details of the American threat assessment have not been shared with other members of the U.S.-led coalition involved in training Iraqi security forces and fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group. No other countries have curtailed or shuttered their operations in Iraq.
International oil companies are not heading for the exits, either. In recent years, many companies have responded to Iraq's bouts of unrest by temporarily removing expatriate personnel from the country, but they have taken no such action in recent days.
ExxonMobil, perhaps the most high-profile American company operating in Iraq, has ordered "no evacuation from the West Qurna 1 oil field," according to a senior Basra Oil Company (BOC) official. That account was confirmed by a second BOC official and an industry official, and remains current at time of publication.
According to a BOC statement, two senior Exxon executives held a routine meeting with BOC Director General Ihsan Ismaael in Basra on Wednesday, discussing "preparations for opening new projects that are nearing completion or are fully complete." The statement said the Exxon executives confirmed that "all foreign workers" are still at the field.
"There are not any new or increased threats by paramilitary groups to U.S. interests in Iraq, whether it's the embassy or American companies," the senior Interior Ministry official.
Iraq's maritime operations have also been unaffected by rising U.S.-Iran tensions, even after the sabotage Sunday of four oil tankers at the UAE's Fujairah port.
"According to our information, the Iranians are targeting Saudi and UAE ports because they know Saudi and UAE are behind the American-Iranian escalation," said a senior Transportation Ministry official with responsibility for Iraqi ports. "Iraq is the lung that Iran uses to breathe: it is in Iran's best interests to keep the Iraqi ports safe."
That official—along with officials in BOC, the state-run Oil Tankers Company, and the Iraqi Ports Company, as well as multiple port workers—said they were not aware of any new threats, and that shipping companies and lifters of Iraqi crude had not shied away from Iraqi ports or requested additional security measures.
The U.S. government has not said there are any new threats to Iraq's oil sector, but its decision to draw down diplomatic personnel appears to be based broadly on an assessment that Iran is now more likely to use its proxy groups in Iraq to target the U.S. military, diplomatic installations, or other interests.
The State Department has not provided any information about the specific threats that prompted its decision, however; and other western military officials have confirmed the assessment of Iraqi intelligence officials who say they have seen no new threats emanating from Iranian-backed paramilitary groups operating under the government's al-Hashid al-Shabi program (sometimes referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF).
"We've seen no change in the posture or laydown of the PMF," said Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, a British officer who serves as the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group. "There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria."
Iraqi intelligence officials acknowledge that Iranian proxies do generally and consistently present serious threats to American personnel in Iraq.
"There is no doubt that those militias, and those calling themselves 'Islamic resistance groups'—either working under the Hashid Commission, or outside of it; it makes no difference—they represent potential threats," the senior Interior Ministry official said. "Of course, some of their elements will try to attack American interests in Iraq."
But, the official said, there is no evidence to show that the threats posed by Iran-backed groups have recently seen a dramatic change. One natural check on their aggression is that, now more than ever, they have something to lose.
"Now they have their political representatives, parties in Parliament. They have ministries, contracts. They've taken over several state companies, created new companies," the Interior Ministry official said. "They're a state within a state. It's not in their interest to see the current government collapse, or to see the state collapse."
A second senior Interior Ministry official, who deployed with multiple Hashid groups during the war against IS, said escalating American rhetoric is the main factor that could cause Iran-backed paramilitaries to take a much more aggressive posture.
"As American threats increase against Iran, it will change the situation dramatically in Iraq," the official said. "It is clear there is a kind of readiness from the Islamic resistance groups for any confrontation with the U.S. military in Iraq."
Iraqi staff reporting from Baghdad are anonymous for their security. Samya Kullab reported from Baghdad. Ali al-Aqily and Jassim al-Jabiri reported from Basra. Jewdat al-Sai'di reported from Amara. Iraqi staff reporting from Nassiriya are anonymous for their security. Ben Van Heuvelen and Ben Lando reported from the United States.
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