By Aref Mohammed
BASRA, Iraq, May 31 (Reuters) – Exxon Mobil employees will start returning to Iraq’s West Qurna 1 oilfield on Sunday after the government agreed to provide extra security, two senior Iraqi oil officials told Reuters on Friday.
Senior company management and essential engineers would be among the first employees to return, the Iraqi officials said, two weeks after Exxon pulled its 60 or so foreign staff from the oilfield and flew them to Dubai.
Exxon Mobil declined to comment on the plan to return staff.
“As a matter of practice, we don’t share specifics related to operational staffing at our facilities,” Exxon spokeswoman Julie King said.
The evacuation came just days after the United States withdrew non-essential staff from its embassy in Baghdad, citing a threat from neighbouringIran, which has close ties to Iraqi Shi’ite militia.
Exxon asked for extra security from the police and army at work sites and residences and Iraq agreed, the officials said. The company has received letters of assurance from the Iraqi oil ministry and Basra Oil Company.
Iraqi Oil Minister Thamer Ghadhban at the time called the evacuation “unacceptable and unjustified”, saying it was a political move, rather than borne out of genuine security concerns. He said he had sent a letter to Exxon Mobil after the staff left asking for the company to immediately return to work at the southern oilfield.
Exxon Mobil is the lead contractor in a long-term deal with Iraq’s South Oil Company to develop and rehabilitate the oil field and increase production.
Production was not affected by the evacuation and work continued normally, overseen by Iraqi engineers, Iraqi officials said at the time. Production remained at 440,000 barrels per day (bpd) and Iraqi officials later said they would increase it to 490,000 bpd shortly.
(Reporting by Aref Mohammed; Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Edmund Blair/Kirsten Donovan/Jane Merriman)