by Robert Fisk
Oil is slippery stuff but not as slippery as the figures now being peddled by Iraq's American occupiers. Up around Kirkuk, the authorities are keeping the sabotage figures secret - because they can't stop their pipelines to Turkey blowing up. And down in Baghdad, where the men who produce Iraq's oil production figures are beginning to look like the occupants of Plato's cave - drawing conclusions from shadows on their wall - the statistics are being cooked. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul who wears combat boots, is "sexing up" the figures to a point where even the oilmen are shaking their heads.
Take Kirkuk. Only when the television cameras capture a blown pipe, flames billowing, do the occupation powers report sabotage. This they did, for example, on 18 August. But the same Turkish pipeline has been hit before and since. It was blown on 17 September and four times the following day. US patrols and helicopters move along the pipeline but, in the huge ravines and tribal areas through which it passes, long sections are indefensible.
European oilmen in Baghdad realise now that Iraqi officials in the oil ministry - one of only two government institutions that the Americans defended from the looters - knew very well that the sabotage was going to occur. "They told me in June that there would be no oil exports from the north," one of them said to me this week. "They knew it was going to be sabotaged - and it had obviously been planned long before the invasion in March."
Early in their occupation, the Americans took the quiet - and unwise - decision to re-hire many Baathist oil technocrats, which means that a large proportion of ministry officials are still ambivalent towards the Americans. The only oil revenues the US can get are from the south. In the middle of August, Mr Bremer gave the impression that production stood at about 1.5 million barrels a day. But the real figure at that time was 780,000 barrels and rarely does production reach a million. In the words of an oil analyst visiting Iraq, this is "an inexcusable catastrophe".
When the US attacked Iraq in March, the country was producing 2.7 million barrels a day. It transpires that in the very first hours after they entered Baghdad on 9 April, American troops allowed looters into the oil ministry. By the time senior officers arrived to order them out, they had destroyed billions of dollars of irreplaceable seismic and drilling data.