Iraq acquiring drones from US to guard oil installations
BAGHDAD - Iraq is acquiring unmanned surveillance drones from the United States as part of efforts to boost bilateral relations and also to beef up security of its oil installations and energy fuel exports amid growing tensions in the region.
The US drones will help to protect the southern oilfield around Basra, which have become vulnerable after the withdrawal of the last American troops, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Monday.
Protecting the vital oil infrastructure is important for Iraq, which holds the fourth largest oil reserves in the world.
"Iraq's navy has purchased U.S. drones to protect the country's oil platforms in the south, from where most of Iraq's oil is shipped," said an official from the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, reported Reuters.
The office, which operates out of the U.S. Embassy and manages U.S. military sales programmes in Iraq, confirmed the sale of drones but declined to share information about the model or number of drones that are part of the contract.
The sales of drones and other military equipment are viewed by the US as a means to nurture strategic ties with Baghdad after the departure of American troops from Iraq in December 2011.
Iraq has already said it is buying more than $15 billion worth of U.S. military hardware, including 36 F-16 fighter planes, M-1 tanks and armored personnel carriers, insisting the weapons are for defensive purposes.
"Iraq should have the ability to protect itself against outside aggression," said Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
As a major oil producer, Iraq could balance Western worries about Iran's threats to cut off oil shipments to some European countries that import Iranian oil.
Iraqi and U.S. officials say Iraq has made remarkable progress in developing its energy industry since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime, suspected to have been engaged in developing nuclear arms.
Iraq has boosted oil production to 3 million barrels per day, up from about 2.5 million before the invasion.
The country's crude exports are forecast to reach 2.75 million bpd by the end of 2012, the world's biggest source of new oil supplies over the next few years.
In six years, Iraq expects to be producing 10 million barrels a day, according to Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy, Hussain al-Shahristani.
"We'd like Iraq to be considered as a dependable long-term supplier of world energy needs," al-Shahristani said.
"According to the energy police plans, we intend to use the drones by the end of this year," said Major General Hamid Ibrahim, head of the energy protection force, reports Reuters.
Ibrahim disclosed that the training exercise has already begun.