WASIT PROVINCE, Iraq — When China's biggest oil company signed the first post-invasion oil field development contract in Iraq last year, the deal was seen as a test of Iraq's willingness to open an industry that had previously prohibited foreign investment.
One year later, the China National Petroleum Corp. has struck oil at the Ahdab field in Wasit province, southeast of Baghdad. And while the relationship between the company and the Iraqi government has gone smoothly, the presence of a foreign company with vast resources drilling oil in a poor, rural corner of Iraq has awakened a wave of discontent there.
"We get nothing directly from the Chinese company, and we are suffering," said Mahmoud Abdul Ridha, head of the Wasit provincial council, whose budget has been cut in half by Baghdad in the past year because of lower international oil prices. "There is an unemployment crisis. We need roads, schools, water treatment plants. We need everything."
Free to protest
The result has been a local-rights movement -- extraordinary in a country where political dissent has traditionally carried the risk of death -- that in the past several months has begun demanding that at least $1 of each barrel of oil produced at the Ahdab field be used to improve access to clean water, health services, schools, paved roads and other needs in the province, which is among the poorest in the country.
The ripples are traveling far beyond Wasit province, too. Frustrations have spilled over into sabotage and intimidation of Chinese oil workers, turning the Ahdab field into a cautionary tale for international oil companies seeking to join the rush to profit from Iraq's vast untapped oil reserves.
All oil revenues go directly to the government in Baghdad and are the foundation of the national budget.
The Iraqi government has so far rejected the locals' demands, but people are clearly beginning to feel that something new is possible.
Few jobs trickle down
The basis of the complaints is that, aside from the hiring of a few hundred residents as laborers and security guards at salaries of less than $600 a month, the Ahdab field -- a roughly $3 billion development project -- has provided no local benefit. Some local farmers began reacting by destroying the company's generators and severing electrical hoses, angry because they believed that their fields were being unfairly handed over to the company. Other residents began expressing outrage that very few jobs were being opened to them.
China National Petroleum says it needs few workers because it is still in the exploration phase of its 23-year project at the Ahdab field. Oil production is not scheduled to begin for 21/2 years.
Ghassan Atiyyah, executive director of the nonprofit Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, said the nascent activism in Wasit province was part of a broader shift in a society that had until recently been resistant to such demands because of years of dictatorship, economic sanctions, war and a culture that retains a tribal influence.