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.