Soldiers examine corrupt oil trade

BAYJI, Iraq - Lt. Col. Ken Kamper of DuPont trained to be an artilleryman. Here in Iraq, though, he's chin deep in the world of oil corruption.

This country has among the world's largest oil reserves. But Mosul, where Fort Lewis soldiers have fought for three years against the insurgency, has seen serious fuel shortages. It's a lot harder to win over the Iraqi people when there are gasoline lines and high fuel prices.

Much of the problem is here at the Bayji Oil Refinery, the largest in Iraq. Kamper estimates that about 60 fuel trucks should leave the refinery for Mosul every day. But half as many actually show up in the north's largest city.

"Bayji is just rife with corruption," said Kamper, who commands the 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment from Fort Lewis. "It is so deeply embedded into everything about Bayji that to say Bayji is corrupt is an understatement."

Kamper isn't trained in petro-­politics or how refineries work. But like the troops he commands - artillerymen converted to doing mostly infantry jobs - ­he is adapting to what is needed to fight Iraq's insurgency.

"I never envisioned I'd be worried about distribution of fuel. But if we ignore the fuel, it's something the terrorists would exploit," he said. "How do you fight a counter-insurgency? Connect with the local population."

The U.S.-led coalition has grappled with fuel problems and oil corruption in Iraq since toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. It became a major problem for Fort Lewis commanders in Mosul a month ago, when a severe fuel shortage sent black market prices skyrocketing.

The Iraqi government responded by ordering that a greater share of production from the Bayji Refinery go to Mosul. But that doesn't do a lot of good if fuel trucks never make it to the city.

Commanders in Mosul asked Kamper to try to figure out what's going on. His battalion is located in the desert at Forward Operating Base Q-West, at Qayarrah. That's about 31 miles south of Mosul, where most of the other Fort Lewis Stryker brigade soldiers fighting in this country are stationed. Bayji is about 105 miles from Qayarrah.

Riding in a group of Humvees, Kamper brought several top aides and an Iraqi general to the refinery over the weekend. Kamper's battalion doesn't need many of the armored Stryker carriers because Qayarrah is less violent.

It was his third trip so far to check the place out and let the refinery officials know he's watching.

Fort Lewis soldiers don't know for sure why the trucks aren't making it to Mosul. But they know a driver can get $10,000 for diverting a truck to the black market. They also know that market helps finance insurgent activity.

Saturday's visit showed the problem goes beyond corruption, though. Hundreds of fuel trucks were jumbled together in chaos. Drivers were sleeping on the ground. It was unclear which trucks were supposed to serve which cities.

"The biggest problem we have right now is that the trucking company doesn't have enough command and control," said Capt. Charles Knoll, a 28-year-old from Puyallup who is quickly becoming the battalion oil expert.

The Fort Lewis soldiers found out that one Iraqi man, Mullah Ragnim, has the power to sign for the Mosul area's share of the fuel from the refinery. Kamper said that when Ragnim doesn't show, as happened Friday, no fuel is trucked to the central distribution point in Mosul.

"That is why there is chaos," said the interpreter working with the Fort Lewis soldiers. "Mullah Ragnim doesn't want a partner."

An Iraqi brigadier general, who didn't want to be identified to protect his family, said there likely is a powerful politician behind Ragnim. The general did not seem optimistic that the problem could be solved soon.

"You can't catch the air," the general said.

There's yet another problem: The refinery isn't producing diesel and kerosene right now. Samir Abbas, head of distribution at the refinery, said a power problem is the culprit.

"What the public sees is that America can't fix the power line," Abbas said. "With all their money, the richest country in the world can't fix the power. It's unbelievable."

Kamper said later that he's heard it many times: The Americans always get told to fix it now. But some things take time here, he said, particularly given the challenging security situation in Iraq.

Kamper is a towering man with Midwestern roots who looks a little like David Letterman might if the comedian were bigger and in far better shape. He was in Qayarrah in 2004 and 2005, then the No. 2 officer in the artillery battalion of another Fort Lewis Stryker brigade.

He said the fuel problem won't be fixed overnight.

Kamper hopes the Iraqi army will start escorting the fuel trucks to make sure they make it to Mosul. He said there are good signs the Iraqis are taking the problem seriously.

"We can try to induce an Iraqi solution," he said.