Though the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has been ousted from the oilfields in northern Iraq that provided the bulk of its revenue stream, the fields are still vulnerable to exploitation, experts and officials told Diyaruna.
At the peak of its power, ISIS had control of enormous oil output, as about one third of Iraq's oil reserves are in northern Iraq, Sadiq al-Bahadli, a professor of finance and banking at al-Mustansiriya University, told Diyaruna in 2016.
The group made millions of dollars from its theft and smuggling of oil.
But with ISIS gone, Iraq's northern oilfields are still suffering from rampant oil theft and smuggling, according to local officials and some Iraqi media reports.
These reports point the finger at certain militias that operate under the auspices of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which control most of the area from southern Mosul to the Hamreen mountains.
This area includes the al-Qayyarah and Najmah oilfields in Ninawa province, and the Allas and Ajil fields east of Tikrit in Salaheddine.
"These fields have been continuously drained, first at the hands of terrorists and now by factions of the PMF," Ninawa tribal spokesman Mazahim al-Huwayet told Diyaruna. "The people’s natural resources are being squandered."
Some factions exploit influence
Certain "influential" factions who exercise control on the ground are regarded with suspicion, al-Huwayet said, stressing that not all PMF factions are to blame.
Theft is occurring on a daily basis, he said, with large-capacity tankers smuggling significant quantities of oil to Iran from Ninawa, Kirkuk and Salaheddine.
This activity is being facilitated by certain factions, who are "exploiting their military advantage and control of oil smuggling routes", he noted.
"Local residents are well aware of the theft, but they are afraid of informing the authorities," he said, adding that some residents submitted reports to the authorities, only to be detained by members of these factions.
Al-Huwayet called on the government to stage an emergency intervention against what he described as "organised criminal activity", asking it to "put an end to the draining of Iraqi oil".
"ISIS took advantage of our oil reserves to fund its criminal activities, and these factions are doing the same thing," he said.
If these operations continue unabated, the country will suffer grave consequences, he said, as it will be hard to "maintain stability and economic vibrancy with such crimes being perpetrated".
Oil smuggling a recurring concern
Accusations about oil smuggling have been levelled before.
In late 2016, according to several media reports, PMF fighters managed to illegally transport 40,000 barrels of oil per day to Iran from the Salaheddine oilfields, Ajil and Allas, selling it at prices that were below market rates.
The current accusations single out four Iran-backed PMF factions: Imam Ali Brigades, Sayed al-Shuhada Brigade, Asaib ahl al-Haq and al-Mumahadoun.
Recent reports indicate that 70% of crude oil smuggling originates from Najmah and al-Qayyarah, and that operations occur late at night at a rate of 30 trucks a day, transporting roughly 15,000 barrels of crude oil per week.
The theft and smuggling of oil preceded ISIS's June 2014 incursion, oil expert Humam al-Shamaa told Diyaruna.
"Terrorists did steal the oil, but there also were gangs involved in this robbery, so this trend is nothing new," he said, noting that security forces have routinely uncovered pipeline sabotage and vandalism.
Damage to economy, public health
"Sometimes the gangs would store the smuggled oil in storage facilities or steal the oil in a way that would damage the field and start fires," al-Shamaa said.
The fires put people's lives at risk, he said, as did the air, water and soil pollution resulting from the improper handling and storage of oil.
"The biggest damage, however, is to the economy," he said, noting that the loss of oil means a loss of state revenue.