Iraq has tightened security around oil infrastructure and oilfields in the south, in response to intelligence suggesting al Qaeda and other insurgent groups plan to attack oil facilities, a security official said.
Reuters reports that Ali al-Maliki, head of the municipal security committee in the southern oil hub of Basra, said the information indicated that al Qaeda in Iraq and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath party were switching their sights to economic targets and oil companies.
"We have received intelligence information of a plan to target oil facilities, including oilfields, by al Qaeda and Baathist insurgent groups," Maliki told Reuters in an interview.
"We have prepared a pre-emptive plan to protect vital oil facilities and foreign oil investors," he added, without providing details.
"We have met representatives from foreign oil firms in coordination with the South Oil Company and pledged to provide full protection at the oilfields and highways they use."
It is difficult for Sunni Islamist insurgents to operate in the largely Shi'ite undetected, and al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups are usually associated with attacks on oil pipelines in Iraq's north, where they continue to find safe havens.
The main threat so far in the south are the Iranian-made roadside bombs planted by Shi'ite militia to target U.S. forces.
The head of the oil police in Basra, Brigadier Moussa Abdul Hasan, said his forces were on alert, but a lack of cooperation and coordination with the private security companies hired by oil firms was hampering their efforts.
"We are well prepared to stop any attacks and to deal with the worst scenarios," Abdul Hasan told Reuters. "Our main concerns are to keep the routes to oilfields widely used by foreign firms clear of roadside bombs."