Although media attention has been focused on civil violence in the Baghdad area, Iraq’s vast and vulnerable network of oil pipelines and pumping stations has become a major battlefield in the ongoing struggle between the US authorities and armed opposition forces. The Americans are trying to boost Iraqi oil exports to finance the occupation and increase global petroleum supplies at a time of worrisome shortages; the resistance fighters are trying to sabotage the pipelines and thereby cripple the US-directed reconstruction effort. So significant is this struggle that Washington has resorted to two shameful initiatives: First, it reactivated a US Army reconnaissance unit accused of war crimes during the Vietnam War to hunt down and kill suspected saboteurs; second,it hired a South African security firm with ties to apartheid-era death squads to manage a pipeline-protection service.

Both of these efforts are part of a campaign known as Task Force Shield, intended to stop sabotage of the 300-mile pipeline carrying crude oil from fields near Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the Turkish border and thence to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Before the war, 800,000 barrels of oil per day, or approximately 40 percent of Iraq’s exports, flowed through this conduit. Exports were resumed after the war and then suspended in June due to continuing explosions and sabotage; some oil is now flowing through the recently repaired pipeline, but far less than before the war. With the Kirkuk-to-Ceyhan pipeline operating at very low levels, Iraqi petroleum officials have been forced to rely on the country’s only other export outlets–the oil terminals at Mina al Bakr and Khawr al Amaya on the Persian Gulf–and these outlets are operating at maximum capacity. This means that any US effort to boost Iraqi exports beyond their current level of about 1.5 million barrels per day will require the permanent reopening of the Ceyhan line and round-the-clock protection against sabotage.

For pipeline protection the Defense Department reactivated a special unit of the 101st Airborne called the Tiger Force. Starting last October, the Tiger Force deployed five teams of ten snipers each along the remote stretches of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. Armed with night-vision scopes and high-powered, M-107 .50-calibre rifles, the snipers flew over the pipelines in specially configured UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and fired at suspected saboteurs from distances of more than 1.5 miles. “We can hit a target before it knows we’re there,” boasted Sgt. Brian Stinson of the special unit.

Aside from the questionable practice of shooting people before they can be identified, the deployment of the Tiger Force raises other ethical questions. In the Vietnam War the Tiger Force was used to hunt down and kill suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers in the fiercely contested Central Highlands region. In a series of recent articles in the Toledo Blade, former members of the Tiger Force admitted that they and their comrades had slaughtered more than 100 Vietnamese civilians in a series of mass killings in the second half of 1967. War crimes proceedings were initiated against eighteen members of the Tiger Force, then dropped [see Scott Sherman, “The Other My Lai,” March 1].

None of the snipers currently serving in the Tiger Force were involved in the alleged Vietnam massacres, but the reactivation of this tainted unit for pipeline duty seems grotesque in view of the tactics it employs–cold-blooded assassination of suspected saboteurs. The Tiger Force was recently replaced in Iraq by elements of Task Force Olympia, but operations of this sort continue.

Similar questions are raised by the use of private security firms employing former South African police and military combatants to train Iraqi guards in pipeline-protection duties. This past August the Pentagon awarded a $39.5 million contract to Erinys International to hire and train 6,500 Iraqis to guard 140 oil installations in northern Iraq. Erinys, a shadowy company that has been in business for just a few years, boasts of contracts with such well-connected firms as Bechtel, Halliburton, Fluor and De Beers Consolidated Mines.

The Erinys contract first aroused controversy last fall, when it was disclosed that its major investors included figures close to Ahmad Chalabi, founder of the Iraqi National Congress and member of the Iraq Governing Council. Other council members, including Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord, charged that Chalabi was using his position on the IGC to funnel lucrative contracts to his cronies in the INC at the expense of national unity.

A more serious problem arose in January when a South African security specialist was killed and four co-workers wounded in a bomb blast at the Shaheen Hotel in Baghdad. Coverage of the event in South Africa revealed that all four were working for an Erinys subcontractor, SAS International, and had all served in South Africa’s apartheid-era security forces. François Strydom, the specialist who died in the explosion, was identified as a former member of the Koevoet, a brutal counterinsurgency unit of the South African Defense Force used to quash independence forces in Namibia during the independence struggle of the 1980s. One of the blast’s survivors, Deon Gouws, is said to be a former Pretoria police sergeant who collaborated with the notorious Vlakplaas death squads and admitted to numerous crimes as part of an amnesty application submitted to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Among the actions for which Gouws ultimately received amnesty was a 1986 car bombing that killed KwaNdebele homeland cabinet minister Piet Ntuli. The Cape Argus of Cape Town subsequently reported that those involved in the Baghdad explosion were believed to be under investigation by South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority for violations of the country’s laws banning mercenary activities–defined as “direct participation as a combatant in armed conflict for private gain” by South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act. Critics say Erinys has yet to register with the country’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, as required by law.

That US troops continue to protect Iraq’s oil infrastructure and that the Defense Department has hired South African mercenaries to assist in this function is yet another piece of evidence–if any more were needed–to demonstrate that oil was, and remains, a critical factor in the Bush Administration’s decision to occupy Iraq.