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'Oil is at the root of US air strikes in Iraq'

Oil is the underlying reason for the United States’ military action in northern Iraq and the oil industry would like to see more of it, according to experts, as energy companies halt production in the war-torn region. The threat from the Islamic State - which stands at the doorway to Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region where most oil companies have their offices - has interrupted oil production and a number of multinationals, including Exxon and Chevron, are withdrawing staff or suspending production. These companies will want to see more U.S. air strikes on militants to stabilize the area and make it safe to work. President Barack Obama has unleashed waves of air strikes on IS insurgents on the pretext of protecting Ezidi civilians sheltering in mountains. The Kurdish Regional Government is sitting on the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, an estimated 45 to 50 billion barrels, Hemin Hawrami, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party's foreign relations committee, said last month. It currently exports 125,000 to 130,000 barrels a day through Turkey. Political scientist David Romano, of Missouri State University, said oil companies would be lobbying for strong U.S. intervention.

"Even just the promise to protect Erbil helps them. However, I think President Obama's intervention was weak.”

Romano outlined a scenario of supplying arms to Kurdish forces or letting the Kurdish authority sell its oil to provide arms. Currently, oil drilled in the Kurdish region can only be sold through the federal Iraqi government, a source of friction between Erbil and Baghdad.

But, Romano said, this would “contain ISIS [as the Islamic State was formerly known] and allow for a significant check on Prime Minister Maliki's power in Baghdad." (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has since been replaced and his successor is expected to choose a unity government.)

Romano added: “I expect the oil company staff who were evacuated will be back soon.”

Professor Richard Stoll, of Rice University, Texas, summarized U.S. interests in Iraq as “a unified Iraq with a broad-based government, preventing civilian deaths, stable global oil market with reasonable prices."

Noting that U.S. is trying to perform a balancing act of these interests, Stoll added: "The Obama administration has only intervened reluctantly and I have no reason to believe that the U.S. will engage in ground combat."

He described air strikes and aid drops as short-term tactics to keep people alive and prevent an Islamic State victory. "These moves do not directly lead to a better government in Iraq,” he said. “But the airstrikes do allow the U.S. to pressure the Iraqi government: we will help you against the Islamic State but you must reform in order to unify the Iraqi people behind you."

As well as Exxon and Chevron, a number of other oil companies have been affected by the violence.

London-based Afren was the first to stop production on Thursday in Barda Rash field, 55km north-west of Erbil; Genel Energy, owner of the Taq Taq and Tawke fields near Kirkuk, said production was continuing but all non-essential staff had been evacuated; Gulf Keystone Petroleum operates the Shaikhan, Sheikh Adi, Akri-Bijeel and Ber Bahr fields and is said to have stopped production; Canada’s Oryx announced it stopped production in Demir Dagh field near Erbil.

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