The proliferation of armed Iran-affiliated militias around the Akkas gas field in western Anbar is the main challenge standing in the way of resuming operations in the field, experts told Diyaruna.
One of the largest natural gas fields in Iraq, Akkas could provide thousands of jobs to local residents and help meet the province's electricity needs.
Gas reserves in Akkas, near the Anbar border town of al-Qaim, are estimated at more than five trillion cubic feet.
Negotiations between the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and the Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) to develop and exploit the Akkas field have failed to make any progress over the past several months.
The Korean company in 2011 beat out several other foreign competitors to win a contract to develop the field. It was forced to suspend operations and pull out in 2014 when ISIS overran large swathes of Anbar province.
After the province's liberation, the Ministry of Oil asked the company to return and resume operations, but the presence of Iran-backed militias, most notably Kataib Hizbullah, Harakat al-Nujaba and Saraya al-Khurasani, gave the company pause.
According to a ministry official, the company "initially welcomed the call to return and exploit the field, but demanded that the government clear the area of all irregular forces".
It claimed the presence of militias renders the area "an unsafe environment for its engineers and workers", the official who asked to remain anonymous told Diyaruna.
"The militias' insistence on staying in the area... may be [ultimately] serving an Iranian agenda, as operating and exploiting the gas field means that Iraq will not need Iranian gas anymore," he said.
Kataib Hizbullah has erected barracks in the southern part of the field and is using the water network and chambers initially built for the field's workers and guards, he said, noting that KOGAS cannot operate amid such chaos.
"We at the oil ministry, communicated with the ministries of interior and defence to have the problem resolved, but the militias have until now continued to stall their departure," he said.
The presence of armed groups of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) is the "only obstacle preventing the return of KOGAS to exploit the gas field", al-Qaim City Council member Ali al-Karbouli told Diyaruna.
"Any investor, whether local or foreign, requires a safe work environment," he said, and it is impossible to work without law and order or in conditions such as those that exist in the Akkas gas field.
He said the company is basing its refusal to return on a clause in the contract signed with the Iraqi government stipulating that the latter is to provide all safety and security precautions for the company, but that is not the case currently at the Akkas field.
The head of the parliamentary oil and energy committee Haibat al-Halbousi told Diyaruna the state-owned Midland Oil Company is currently negotiating with KOGAS about conditions for its return.
There is a need to resume operations in the field which will provide electricity and also jobs for thousands of unemployed Anbar residents, as well as revitalise the private sector, he said.
"We hope that the government's efforts to address the crisis will yield a permanent solution," he added.
'No need for Iranian gas'
The presence of militias in the field not only disrupts the exploitation of gas for electricity production, but also the building of an integrated residential neighbourhood by KOGAS as stipulated in the contract, said Iraqi economic affairs expert Ahmed al-Jubouri.
Under the contract, KOGAS would also build roads, health centres and schools for the villages and towns near the field, he told Diyaruna, adding that Akkas would boost the economy of no less than 15,000 families through the creation of permanent and temporary jobs.
"It does not make sense why the militias insist on deploying in a patch of desert with nothing around it, except that there are Iranian efforts to disrupt work in the field," he said.
If the gas field becomes operational, "there would be no need for Iranian gas", said al-Jubouri, especially as KOGAS could lay 300 kilometres of fast flow pipelines through the desert to Baghdad to supply the Baghdad and al-Musaib power plants, as well as the two gas-fired power plants in Haditha and Baiji.