by Kamal TahaSun Mar 18, 12:15 AM ET
Some Iraqi oil experts and politicians are aghast over their government's approval of a bill that many fear will deliver the country's oil wealth to international firms on a platter.
In February, capping months of bitter wrangling, the Baghdad government approved a draft law that aims to distribute revenue from crude oil exports equitably across Iraq's 18 provinces and open the sector to foreign investors.
The multi-party government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sees the legislation as a key plank in moves to reunite a country torn apart by sectarian violence, and hopes that parliament will ratify the bill in May.
But former Iraqi oil industry officials, experts and lawmakers gathered in Jordan to debate the bill have warned that the timing is wrong, and expressed strong concerns that Iraq would lose control of its own "black gold."
"There are many question marks hanging over this draft law," said Dhia al-Bakaa, former president of the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organisation (SOMO).
"Why the timing? Why the hurry when we still lack political, economic and security stability," Bakaa asked a recent conference organised by the non-governmental Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies.
"The Iraqi National Oil Company should have been restructured before the government endorsed the draft law, to allow INOC to develop the giant oil fields so that they would not face pressure and extortion in the future."
Issam Chalabi, an oil minister under executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, said the bill did not take "into account our greater national interests."
It was adopted "to satisfy US President George W. Bush," who called on the newly installed Maliki government last June to restore electricity in Iraq, adopt a new investment law and restructure the oil industry, he said.
Chalabi also charged that Iraqi oil exports over the past four years have gone "unchecked and unaccounted for."
Iraq's proven oil reserves, estimated at 115 billion barrels, are thought to be the third largest in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi production has tumbled from 3.5 million barrels per day to around two million. Chalabi said Iraq has been exporting around 1.5 million bpd.
Faleh al-Khayat, a former head of planning at the oil ministry, warned that "major foreign oil firms are greedy and will covet Iraq's oil wealth" if the bill is adopted.
"If Iraq's giant oilfields are developed they would yield 80 percent of Iraq's proven reserves estimated at 115 billion barrels," he said.
MP Saleh Mutlak of Iraq's National Dialogue Front echoed him: "We have no need for foreign companies. We are experienced enough to reap the fruit of our wealth."
Mutlak also said he feared the bill may not live up to government hopes that it will unify Iraq.
"We don't want a new law that will further divide us. We need a law that will unite the Iraqi people," he said.
Most oil production is in the Shiite south, with the best prospects for new finds centred on the Kurdish north. The northern oil hub of Kirkuk is disputed between Kurdish and Arab leaders.
Motlak said parliament in Baghdad should not ratify the bill "until we reach the appropriate climate for investments in Iraq."
MP Ali Mashhadani agreed.
"Our oil wealth is black gold that must be kept underground until security conditions are appropriate to take advantage of it. It has been entrusted to our safekeeping by the people we represent," he said.
According to Mashhadani "Iraq has sold 125 billion dollars worth of oil since the start of the US-led occupation."
The Iraqi people have not benefited from this revenue and "are eating garbage," Mashhadani said, suggesting that income from oil sales be given to the people in the form of state-subsidised "monthly rations cards."
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