Iraq to assemble 27,000-strong 'oil army' to protect energy assets from Isis

Baghdad is to create a 27,000-strong force which will protect Iraq's key energy assets throughout the country against the threat posed by Isis, Iraq's oil minister has confirmed.

Adel Adbel Mahdi, in charge of Iraq's oil resources, announced plans for the new defensive army after a meeting of ministers of member countries of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) in the Austrian capital, Vienna, the Telegraph reported.

"Their mission is to secure all oil and electricity facilities," he said, adding that the elite defence units would receive further training and equipment and the organisation of the units would be finalised in the next few weeks in governmental meetings.

Isis has consistently targeted Iraq's major infrastructure, such as oil pipelines and major dams. Following their capture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, last month, the group closed the city's dam, cutting off water flow to a number of government-held areas.

The capture of the dam has raised fears that the Iraqi military's operations against the group will be hampered and the lack of water could spark a humanitarian crisis in the areas dependent on the facility.

While the majority of Iraq's energy resources are concentrated in the country's southern regions, with its oil hub situated in Basra, the group were reportedly reaping up to $1 million (€890,000) a day as of last October from oil taken from areas it has captured across northern and western Iraq, such as oil-rich areas north and south of Mosul, the country's second-biggest city and a stretch of the Kirkuk/Ceyhan oil pipeline, also in northern Iraq.

Sajad Jiyad, Iraq expert and research director at the independent consultancy Integrity, says that the planned oil army will consist of members of the military and police force and will not be limited to the protection of Iraq's oil reserves but also the country's key electricity and water infrastructure such as Mosul Dam which was captured by Isis and retaken by Iraqi forces in August last year.

"It will work on a full-time basis purely to protect the energy infrastructure," he says. "Not just the oilfields but also electricity and pumping stations. They do not have that number [27,000] at the moment but they are going to work to build a force to protect those."

"Baiji [Iraq's biggest oil refinery], the Haditha Dam and Mosul Dam would be protected by this kind of force," he adds. "Right now, it's about getting back some of these places. It's about making sure in the future if there is an attack, critical infrastructure is not damaged."

On Sunday, Iraqi forces supported by Shiite militiamen advanced on Isis militants in control of the Baiji refinery, 100 miles (170km) north of the capital, Baghdad.

Soldiers raised a flag over a local government building, the commander of the Interior Ministry's forces, Brigadier General Nassir al-Fartousi told state TV, with other officials hailing the capture of a number of areas in the town an "important victory".