MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. First up this hour, a look at one troubled Iraqi ministry. Since the U.S. invaded three years ago, Iraq's oil ministry estimates that it has lost some $10 billion in revenue. Corruption and sabotage are largely to blame, and U.S. and Iraqi officials say the Sunni-led insurgency is benefiting. Sixteen battalions of Iraqi troops are tasked with protecting the oil infrastructure, but, as NPR's Anne Garrels reports, those forces have been a big part of the problem.

ANNE GARRELS: Iraq has almost 5,000 miles of pipeline, but the attacks focus on a small triangle in the center and north of the country, just where the 16 oil ministry battalions are supposed to be working. The resulting damage in this key area has repeatedly interrupted the flow of crude oil and gas, crippled a major refinery and electricity generating plant, halted oil exports and created serious fuel shortages in the Iraqi capital. Dr. Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, the former oil minister, says the battalions are at best useless. At worst, he says, they may be linked to the insurgency.

IBRAHIM BAHR AL: If you look for the statistics of sabotage and attacks against the pipelines in 2005, 2004, you could conclude easily that really those battalions did nothing, and probably sometime they are the cause of this damage.

GARRELS: Two years ago, U.S. and Iraqi officials chose Mishan al-Jabouri, a controversial former Bathist, to set up the battalions. In theory, they're under the defense ministry. The reality is, they work independently. His tribe is powerful in Salah ad Din, the province through which the northern pipeline runs. At the time, officials thought this was a good way to pay off the Sunni tribes in this restive area and keep them from joining the insurgency. That thinking has now changed. But given how explosive this subject is, neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials will speak on the record.

According to these officials, the battalions have often been little more than ghosts. Following an investigation by Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, Jabouri has now been charged with siphoning off money intended to hire and equip thousands of guards. U.S. and Iraqi officials suspect but cannot prove that Jabouri funneled some of the money he was given to protect the pipeline to the very insurgents who have been attacking it. And where the battalions actually do exist, mounting evidence points to their involvement in corruption and sabotage.

For instance, the U.S. military discovered that members of the 16th battalion blew themselves up by mistake as they were transporting a roadside bomb. The commander of the battalion was assassinated, and eight of his men have since been detained for his killing and corruption. The U.S. Embassy's economic counselor, Tom Delare, says attacks on the infrastructure are so sophisticated and well-timed, there must be informers.

THOMAS DELARE: The ability of the pipeline to erupt into flames shortly after being repaired is just so coincidental that it defies any other explanation. There's some kind of inside information.

GARRELS: Delare says there are many intersecting parties who are interested in continuing the chaos, corrupt officials and ministry employees, insurgents, smugglers, and the oil battalions themselves. Former oil minister Dr. Bahr al- Uloum is frustrated that the oil ministry battalions still exist. Despite serious concerns, U.S. and Iraqi officials say they've been a hot political issue that some were reluctant to handle, especially in the run-up to the December elections, in which the U.S. wanted alienated Sunnis to participate. Jabouri, a Sunni, was running for parliament. He was elected, but has since fled the country. For months, U.S. and Iraqi officials have discussed reforming the oil ministry battalions. Again, former oil minister Dr. Bahr Al-Uloum.

BAHR AL: My personal feeling is we have to have new forces. They cannot be reformed.

GARRELS: With deep divisions between political parties, a new Iraqi government is still a long way off, and any steps are unlikely now.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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