Hundreds of foreign workers are being hurriedly evacuated from Basra in southern Iraq following violent protests by Iraqi oil workers and villagers over two incidents.
In one of them, a British security man tore down a poster or flag bearing the image of Imam Hussein, a figure highly revered by Shia Muslims. The violence may make international oil companies more nervous about operating in Iraq, which is at the centre of the largest oil development boom in the world.
The fighting started on Monday when oil workers refused to remove Shia banners and flags when asked to do so by a British security adviser who then took them down himself – by one account, tearing a poster of Imam Hussein.
This happened just before Ashura, the Shia day of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed by the Caliph Yazid at the battle of Kerbala in 680, the anniversary of which falls today.
An Iraqi witness was reported as saying: “Workers were provoked and squabbled with the British guy, but he suddenly pulled a pistol and started shooting and wounded one Iraqi worker.” The man was later removed to hospital bleeding heavily.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has called for the deportation of the unnamed British security man. Iraqi officials in Basra said he worked for the security firm G4S at a camp run by Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. The camp is near the giant Rumaila field, close to the border with Kuwait, which produces a third of Iraq’s oil output. BP and China’s CNPC have been seeking rapidly to raise production at the field.
Accounts differ on exactly what happened, but there appear to have been at least two incidents when Shia oil workers and people living in nearby villages believed that images of their most venerated religious figures had been desecrated.
“A British employee took down a flag for Hussein and a picture of Imam Ali from the cars of the security company, and tore them down with a knife,” Ali Shaddad, a member of Basra’s provincial council, told Agence France-Presse. “This provoked a group of workers and they went and hit him repeatedly.”
At least part of this incident was caught on a video uploaded to YouTube, It shows a man in a flak jacket being dragged from a white vehicle and hit repeatedly by men in dark blue T-shirts, who carry long sticks and spades. He falls occasionally but generally manages to stay on his feet before he is rescued by Iraqi soldiers. In the background is the wall of a Schlumberger camp, topped with barbed wire.
An Iraqi field engineer employed by Schlumberger describes the incident, saying it started at 10am on Monday when an Iraqi driver working for the security team attached a Shia holy flag to the antenna of one of the vehicles. He was asked to remove it by the head of security and refused, so “the team leader jumped up on the car and he tear up [sic] which made the Iraqi driver and his colleagues [all Shia] to be angry”. They reportedly called in protesters from outside the company to join the attack.
The days leading up to Ashura are always a particularly sensitive time in Iraq, with millions of Shia involved in the mourning ceremonies.
The Iraqi Oil Report website said that BP, the main operator at Rumaila, was scaling back its workforce and that employees of Baker Hughes and Schlumberger “were massed at Basra airport”. There were conflicting reports about whether the oil services companies were shutting down their operations.
In an earlier incident affecting Baker Hughes, an Egyptian worker had removed the flags commemorating Imam Ali and Imam Hussein from company vehicles. Protests prompted Iraqi authorities to arrest the Egyptian on charges of insulting a religion, while Baker Hughes suspended its operations in the country and declared force majeure because of “a significant disruption of business”.
In general, the international oil companies that have poured into Iraq in recent years are barely affected by the violence which is killing about 1,000 civilians a month. Most are Shia caught by blasts from car bombs and suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives. The number of incidents and casualties has reached a level not seen since 2008, at the end of the last round of the Shia-Sunni civil war in which tens of thousands were killed. The deaths are mostly in the cities and towns of central and northern Iraq, while the oil companies are developing fields around Basra in the far south.
Their foreign workers live in fortified camps, protected by security companies, and move in well-protected convoys. At this time of year, Shia-dominated districts in Iraq are a forest of banners and flags, and walls are covered with portraits of revered religious leaders past and present.
Some 41 people, mostly Shia pilgrims, have been killed so far during the Ashura festival by bombings that bear the hallmarks of al-Qa’ida. In one attack, 17 pilgrims died and 65 were wounded by a suicide bomber who targeted a procession of pilgrims north of Baquba, near Baghdad, in a mixed Sunni-Shia province notorious for its violence.
Two million Shia are expected to make pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Kerbala today, protected by 35,000 soldiers. As part of the ritual, the mourners beat and cut their heads and chests and whip themselves with chains to emphasise their grief and as a sign of remorse for failing to defend Imam Hussein.
The quality of security firms in Iraq varies enormously. Some are highly disciplined and discreet, while others have been trigger-happy – making them extremely unpopular.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.