In a covert operation last Saturday, Feb. 24, the day after the American air raid of Baghdad and Mosul, a special US force blew up and severed the Baghdad-Aleppo rail link carrying contraband Iraqi oil by train to Syria. Neither side has officially admitted the operation took place. DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources say it was carried out in the Ein Zalah oilfield area of Northern Iraqi – either by one of the special US Ranger or Seal Team 6 units or by Kurdish tribesmen hired and trained by US agents.
The damaged railway runs from Baghdad past the northern oilfields, across the frontier into to Aleppo, Syria, and on to the Mediterranean port of Latakia. Whent he oil trains reach the big electricity station center at Aleppo, they are unloaded into the big depots serving the station. A small part remains there to provide Syria with cheap electricity, the bulk is pumped to the oil terminals in Latakia, the exit port for the smuggled oil, most of which goes to Russia and Italy.
US intelligence was alerted to this oil smuggling route when Iraq and Syria began buying large quantities of container railway trucks in France and Austria.
The rail link closed down in the Iran-Iraq war of the eighties, when Syria sided with Iran. It remained closed until seven months ago. Publicly the railroad was announced open for passenger traffic. In actual fact, it was taken over for oil transport because the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline is in such a bad state of repair that it cannot carry more than 110-120,000 barrels a day. That leaves more than 40 pc of the oil to be moved through Syria by rail. Our sources are sure that a total of 200,000 barrels of oil is transiting Syria per day – not 100,000 as reported elsewhere.
The US special force, according to some of our military sources, entered Iraq from the Turkish town of Dornaq close to the Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi frontier junction so as not to pass through Syrian territory. US secretary of state Colin Powell’s visit to Damascus Monday, 26th was taken into account. (See Hot Point Feb. 27 for visit.) He asked the Syrian ruler Beshar Assad to halt the flow of Iraqi oil but was rebuffed as expected. The special force therefore had to cross Tigris River with the help of local Kurdish guides. It met no resistance; the few Iraqi troops thinly guarding the area made off when they saw the incoming force.
In 24 hours in the area, they sabotaged the railroad at four points at least, creating deep craters at two, so to slow down repairs.
Reconnecting the track and restoring the earthworks in this remote part will take the Iraqis at least three weeks if they work fast.
In the meantime, the Bush administration will have emphasized its primary goal of keeping international oil prices stable at 22-28 dollars – up to a $30 ceiling – per barrel and safe from Iraq’s dumping tactics, so as to make the rapid development of the Alaska oil reserves worth while. Any assault on price stability will be therefore be given short shrift and the covert sabotage of the Iraq-Syria railway line may not be the last. Defending the price of oil should be seen as a vital component of the Bush strategy against the Saddam regime, and not the least pressing.
Iraq sells Syria oil at $11 the barrel, far below the world price. The Syrians resell the oil for $22-26 a barrel, handing over 55 pc of their profit to Baghdad. A still larger quantity of Iraqi oil is also smuggled to world markets through Iran, carried clandestinely down the Gulf by assorted water craft, transferred to Iranian boats at the Arab emirates, probably the UAE, and thence to Iran for onward export.