By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 5, 2006
BAGHDAD -- An effort to persuade Sunni Arab tribes to protect Iraq's vital petroleum installations rather than attack them foundered when an Iraqi lawmaker allegedly took control of the program, padding payrolls and embezzling funds, according to an investigation ordered by the office of Iraq's prime minister.
The program was one of several at times overlapping initiatives undertaken over the past three years by the U.S. and Iraqi governments to safeguard pipelines and other oil infrastructure crucial to Iraq's economy and the world's oil supply. Insurgent bombings and other sabotage, as well as theft and massive smuggling, have brought production and exports from Iraq's oil reserves -- the second- or third-largest in the world -- far below prewar levels.
The United States and Iraq have worked to recruit local Sunni Arab tribes to guard pipelines that run through their lands, and efforts are continuing. The current effort, involving units called Strategic Infrastructure Battalions, "hasn't advanced enough in training and vetting" to determine whether it will succeed, said British Maj. Gen. Nicholas Parker, the Multinational Corps-Iraq deputy commander for infrastructure.
An earlier version of the effort derailed last year when a Sunni Arab member of Iraq's National Assembly, Mishan Jubouri, exceeded his authority by assuming command of one of the tribal oil-protection forces and pocketed money intended to keep the unit operating, according to the Iraqi government's investigation.
Jubouri, who was reelected to parliament in the Dec. 15 elections, left Iraq for Syria after an arrest warrant was issued for him in the case, said Jawad Maliki, chairman of the legislature's Defense and Security committee, which received the report from the investigation in late November. Maliki, interviewed last week after The Washington Post separately obtained a copy of the investigation findings, said lawmakers were not immune from prosecution.
Jubouri, reached on his cell phone, called the allegations "nonsense," saying he served only as an adviser to the oil-protection battalions. Jubouri also challenged the legality of the arrest warrant against him. "I will come back to Iraq when I want," he said, without identifying the country he was in.
Parker gave no details of Jubouri's involvement with the oil-protection battalions but said the initiative under Jubouri was not successful. A former senior U.S. military official here with knowledge of the battalions said that he did not know of any involvement by Jubouri and that he suspected Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and legislature might be exaggerating any wrongdoing for political reasons. The official spoke on condition he not be identified further.
Jubouri, a businessman, profited heavily during the rule of Saddam Hussein and maintained prominence after Hussein's fall. Soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Jubouri declared himself governor of the northern province of Ninevah. He was elected to the National Assembly in the country's first post-Hussein elections in January 2005, and he and his political bloc won three seats in December's national elections for a full-term, four-year parliament.
Jubouri's involvement with the oil-protection battalions stretched from January to October 2005, according to Maliki. He initially was asked by the Defense Ministry to help with the nomination of officers and recruitment of soldiers for battalions that would guard pipelines between the north-central refinery town of Baiji and Baghdad, according to the government investigation.
Jubouri's involvement should have ended with that, the report on the investigation charges. "However, Mr. Jubouri continued to exercise full control over these battalions as if he were their commander," the report says.
The report accuses Jubouri of taking the first month's salary of all the men in the battalions, on the grounds that the soldiers had not yet fully begun their tasks. He also directed commanders of several battalions to include 200 to 300 imaginary names on the payrolls of what were supposed to be 1,000-man battalions, and he kept the fictitious soldiers' salaries, the investigators charge.
Through a company formed in the name of one of his sons, Jubouri also took charge of the money paid to feed battalions, demanding a contract for about $102,000 to feed each battalion each month, the report alleges. He kept most of the money, "dispensing an amount ranging from one-sixth and one-fifth of that amount to each battalion to manage their own food supplies," the investigators allege.
The lawmaker also intervened in supplying weapons to the battalions, at one point directing soldiers to transport more than 200 Kalashnikov assault rifles in civilian vehicles. Insurgents attacked the vehicles, killed two of the soldiers and took the guns, the report alleges.
Finally, Jubouri deployed some of the battalion troops to protect his homes, party headquarters and relatives, the report alleges.
Parker confirmed that each of the battalions has been short about 250 men on average. Asked whether the numbers represented men not showing up for duty or padded payrolls, Parker said, "A bit of both."
It was not clear how many battalions Jubouri is alleged to have embezzled money from. The investigating committee brought into being by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's office is seeking more investigation by the National Assembly to determine the amount of money allegedly commandeered.
Maliki said he did not know the exact amount of money allegedly embezzled by the lawmaker. "For sure, billions of dinars," or millions of dollars, he said. Rough estimates based on details in the charges suggest several million dollars would have been involved.
The allegations surrounding Jubouri reflect the difficulty that U.S. and Iraqi officials face as they grapple with a question that has persisted since British colonialists started developing Iraq's oil fields in the 1920s: whether to pay off or fight the tribes that attack the oil pumps and conduits in their territory.
Tribes often have attacked pipelines to force payment of protection money, to retaliate for being shut out of payments to rival tribes, or for other political or financial ends. Over decades Britain, successive Iraqi governments and now the U.S.-led coalition have opted to pay, enlisting the tribes as guards against attacks.
Many U.S. officers say some tribal recruits have proved among the finest soldiers in the oil-protection effort. Other Western and Iraqi officers and officials, however, say they suspect some tribal recruits of taking part in attacks on the very oil installations they are paid to guard.
The U.S.-led coalition has frequently shifted plans and aims for the tribal forces and given the projects varying degrees of oversight. At one point, Western security contractors subcontracted to the tribes for the pipeline protection.
The current phase of recruitment and training, begun in spring or early summer of last year, aims at turning the tribal fighters and other oil-protection recruits into a disciplined force and involves far more training, oversight and integration into overall security efforts than previous phases, Parker said.
"It's a method of tribal engagement," Parker said, adding, "It has been very challenging because some of them are part of the problem."
The idea is to convince the tribes that the oil they are protecting is the patrimony of the tribes and all Iraqis. "Bring them in, bring them into the Ministry of Defense, and turn them into proper battalions," Parker said. "These were wild men."
Staff writer Nelson Hernandez and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.