Foreigners flee Iraq oil flare-ups: Workers leave after Shia fury erupts

At a time of tremendous religious significance for the Shia, the insensitive actions of a British security man appear to have sparked a major crisis

Hundreds of foreign workers are being hurriedly evacuated from Basra in southern Iraq following violent protests by Iraqi oil workers and villagers over two incidents.

In one of them, a British security man tore down a poster or flag bearing the image of Imam Hussein, a figure highly revered by Shia Muslims. The violence may make international oil companies more nervous about operating in Iraq, which is at the centre of the largest oil development boom in the world.

The fighting started on Monday when oil workers refused to remove Shia banners and flags when asked to do so by a British security adviser who then took them down himself – by one account, tearing a poster of Imam Hussein.

This happened just before Ashura, the Shia day of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed by the Caliph Yazid at the battle of Kerbala in 680, the anniversary of which falls today.

An Iraqi witness was reported as saying: “Workers were provoked and squabbled with the British guy, but he suddenly pulled a pistol and started shooting and wounded one Iraqi worker.” The man was later removed to hospital bleeding heavily.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has called for the deportation of the unnamed British security man. Iraqi officials in Basra said he worked for the security firm G4S at a camp run by Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. The camp is near the giant Rumaila field, close to the border with Kuwait, which produces a third of Iraq’s oil output. BP and China’s CNPC have been seeking rapidly to raise production at the field.

Accounts differ on exactly what happened, but there appear to have been at least two incidents when Shia oil workers and people living in nearby villages believed that images of their most venerated religious figures had been desecrated.

“A British employee took down a flag for Hussein and a picture of Imam Ali from the cars of the security company, and tore them down with a knife,” Ali Shaddad, a member of Basra’s provincial council, told Agence France-Presse. “This provoked a group of workers and they went and hit him repeatedly.”

At least part of this incident was caught on a video uploaded  to YouTube, It shows a man in a flak jacket being dragged from a white vehicle and hit repeatedly by men in dark blue T-shirts, who carry long sticks and spades. He falls occasionally but generally manages to stay on his feet before he is rescued by Iraqi soldiers. In the background is the wall of a Schlumberger camp, topped with barbed wire.

An Iraqi field engineer employed by Schlumberger describes the incident, saying it started at 10am on Monday when an Iraqi driver working for the security team attached a Shia holy flag to the antenna of one of the vehicles. He was asked to remove it by the head of security and refused, so “the team leader jumped up on the car and he tear up [sic] which made the Iraqi driver and his colleagues [all Shia] to be angry”. They reportedly called in protesters from outside the company to join the attack.

The days leading up to Ashura are always a particularly sensitive time in Iraq, with millions of Shia involved in the mourning ceremonies.

The Iraqi Oil Report website said that BP, the main operator at Rumaila, was scaling back its workforce and that employees of Baker Hughes and Schlumberger “were massed at Basra airport”. There were conflicting reports about whether the oil services companies were shutting down their operations.

In an earlier incident affecting Baker Hughes, an Egyptian worker had removed the flags commemorating Imam Ali and Imam Hussein from company vehicles. Protests prompted Iraqi authorities to arrest the Egyptian on charges of insulting a religion, while Baker Hughes suspended its operations in the country and declared force majeure because of “a significant disruption of business”.

In general, the international oil companies that have poured into Iraq in recent years are barely affected by the violence which is killing about 1,000 civilians a month. Most are Shia caught by blasts from car bombs and suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives. The number of incidents and casualties has reached a level not seen since 2008, at the end of the last round of the Shia-Sunni civil war in which tens of thousands were killed. The deaths are mostly in the cities and towns of central and northern Iraq, while the oil companies are developing fields around Basra in the far south.

Their foreign workers live in fortified camps, protected by security companies, and move in well-protected convoys. At this time of year, Shia-dominated districts in Iraq are a forest of banners and flags, and walls are covered with portraits of revered religious leaders past and present.

Some 41 people, mostly Shia pilgrims, have been killed so far during the Ashura festival by bombings that bear the hallmarks of al-Qa’ida. In one attack, 17 pilgrims died and 65 were wounded by a suicide bomber who targeted a procession of pilgrims north of Baquba, near Baghdad, in a mixed Sunni-Shia province notorious for its violence.

Two million Shia are expected to make pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Kerbala today, protected by 35,000 soldiers. As part of the ritual, the mourners beat and cut their heads and chests and whip themselves with chains to emphasise their grief and as a sign of remorse for failing to defend Imam Hussein.

The quality of security firms in Iraq varies enormously. Some are highly disciplined and discreet, while others have been trigger-happy – making them extremely unpopular.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own