KIRKUK, Iraq -- The Iraqi interim government, in conjunction with U.S. forces, is setting up three dedicated oil security battalions to safeguard oil infrastructure in and around the northern city of Kirkuk.
In addition, the nascent Iraqi air force, based at a U.S. airfield near Kirkuk, has begun patrolling the area's three major pipelines using Jordanian-built light aircraft equipped with a variety of sensors.
Kirkuk's oil accounts for 40 percent of Iraq's reserves. Pipelines originating in Kirkuk carry crude to Jordan and Turkey for refining and to Baghdad for shipment to port facilities.
"Kirkuk has not been meeting its potential," said Maj. Darren Blagburn, an intelligence officer with the Idaho National Guard's 116th Regiment, which is deployed to the city.
At peak capacity, Kirkuk has the ability to pump about 1.2 million barrels a day. But terrorist attacks on pipelines and equipment have pushed down production to about 800,000 barrels per day.
Recently, militants exploded a bomb on one of only two cranes used by the state-run Northern Oil Company to seal breached large pipes. The attack slowed the already weeklong process of repairing damaged pipelines.
Iraq's Northern Oil Company's security has long been handled by local tribal leaders, who often put relatives in key positions regardless of qualifications, the U.S. military says.
"These new [oil security brigades] will be key" to changing that, said Maj. Fred Gilson, operations officer of the 116th, which is training Iraqi security forces in the Kirkuk area.
Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart said his soldiers -- most of whom are reservists -- bring skills from their civilian jobs that make them superior instructors. A few, he said, are police trainers back home.
Gen. Gayhart said the effort is paying off. U.S. forces are planning to turn over control of Kirkuk's security, including oil facilities, to the Iraqis no later than July.
In this ethnically mixed city, Kurdish peshmerga militia patrol alongside police, Iraqi army and U.S. forces.
It is not clear whether the oil security brigades would be assigned to the regular Iraqi army or would operate independently.
Col. Mahkmud Mohamed Kamal, executive officer of the Iraqi army's 16th Brigade, one of two brigades in the area, said most of his 2,000 soldiers are former peshmerga who fought Iraqi forces in the 1980s and '90s and bring a great deal of experience and discipline to their new role.
If the oil security brigades are assigned to the Iraqi army, they could serve with Col. Kamal's troops.
Iraqi battalions typically have between 400 and 700 soldiers and are equipped with light weapons and trucks.
The interim Iraqi government is counting on oil revenue to fund reconstruction. An acute gasoline shortage throughout Iraq would be eased by a more reliable shipment of crude to refineries.
Also, a large propane plant in Kirkuk provides much of Iraq's heating and cooking oil.
Three small pipes pumping crude to refineries in the Iraqi city of Bayji have been operating without interruption for three weeks as the result of increased security, Maj. Blagburn said.
But some Kirkuk residents complain that even when crude is flowing, their city sees too little refined oil and too little oil revenue.
The issue of dividing oil revenue has become a key obstacle in negotiations between the leading Shi'ite coalition and the Kurds to form a national government since the Jan. 30 elections.