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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Iraq in Talks With American and European Companies to Develop 5 New Oil Fields


BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government is negotiating with American and European oil companies to manage the development of five new fields in northern and southern Iraq, an Oil Ministry official said Wednesday.

Iraq hopes to reach agreements that will help it reach its goal of increasing crude oil production — now 2.3 million barrels a day — by 500,000 barrels a day, said Asim Jihad, a spokesman for the Oil Ministry.

The oil minister, Hussain al-Sharistani, is in Vienna for a meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and did not respond to requests for an interview.

Iraq once had one of the region’s strongest agricultural and industrial economies. But United Nations sanctions and years of war with Iran destroyed much of its economic base, leaving the nation heavily dependent on petrodollars.

Hobbled by armed conflict, mismanagement and neglect, Iraq produces less oil than Saudi Arabia (more than nine million barrels a day) or Iran (nearly four million barrels a day), and far less than its potential capacity.

Mr. Jihad said Iraq hoped to produce six million barrels of crude a day by 2015.

He declined to identify the companies invited to bid on the technical service contracts because the deals have not been completed. But in previous interviews Iraqi officials have described meetings in February with executives from Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total SA.

Mr. Jihad said Iraqi officials selected specific companies for their knowledge of Iraq’s oil fields and their expertise in managing large development projects.

The negotiations are in their second round, he said, and would probably be completed by the end of this month.

“These companies can offer their management experience, oil field studies and consultation on technology,” he said. “And the Iraqis will execute. The Iraqis will provide the labor.”

Despite Iraq’s enormous reserves — in excess of 100 billion barrels — global oil corporations have been reluctant to invest because of a lack of clarity among Iraqi politicians about how to develop the industry and how to share profits. The monumental scale of the violence in Iraq has also dissuaded many investors.

“Companies have been hesitant to invest in Iraq’s oil fields because of the security conditions,” Mr. Jihad said. “But these contracts are short term. These contracts are the best we can do under the current conditions.”

The Oil Ministry is studying more than 70 oil exploration bids, he added.

Parliament has still not agreed on a law to determine how the country’s oil wealth will be divided. But a Kurdish official reached late Wednesday said that while he was not familiar with the details of the negotiations, he could not immediately see why the Kurdish government would oppose them.

The Kurds angered Sunni and Shiite leaders last fall when they signed oil exploration and development deals with international oil companies.

In a development in the aftermath of the trial of two former high-ranking Health Ministry officials, the Justice Ministry released them on Wednesday.

Ghadanfar Hamood al-Gasim, Iraq’s top prosecutor, said the three-judge panel that acquitted the two of running Shiite death squads in 2005 and 2006 had ordered their release from American custody.

The trial of the men, Hakim al-Zamili, a former deputy health minister, and Hameed al-Shimari, the former director of the ministry’s 13,000 member security service, was the first major prosecution of suspected Shiite death squad leaders.

The sectarian death squads, many of whose members were government security guards, paramilitary personnel and police officers, killed thousands of people, most of them Sunni Arabs, from 2005 to 2007, and reshaped the sectarian demographics of Baghdad.

Violence swept the predominantly Sunni Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq on Wednesday, even as the American ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker; the deputy prime minister, Barham Salih; and other top officials from seven northern provinces met to discuss reconstruction plans.

Insurgents and local townspeople exchanged heavy gunfire in a village near Balad, about 60 miles north of the capital, the Iraqi police said. At least two people were killed in the clashes and at least 10 others were wounded.

A roadside bomb in the same town the day before hit an American convoy, killing a Sudanese interpreter and wounding two American soldiers, the American military confirmed Wednesday.

Another roadside bomb in the same vicinity killed an Iraqi and wounded three other people.

In Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein about 80 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqi police killed a suspected insurgent during a raid on his home, an Iraqi security official said.

In Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his van near a checkpoint, wounding six people. A police official said the blast could have been more deadly, but guards shot the driver before he reached the checkpoint.

In the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen killed a man with Iraqi and New Zealand citizenship.

The victim, Dr. Abdul-Satar Tahir Sharif, 75, was a lecturer at Kirkuk University, local police officials said.

In a separate attack near Kirkuk, gunmen killed two people and wounded four others, the police said. All the victims were members of the same family. And in a third attack in the Kirkuk area, a roadside bomb killed one person and wounded two others.

In Mosul, a city about 230 miles north of Baghdad that still seethes with sectarian violence, local police officials said insurgents had killed two policemen.

The police also discovered three unidentified bodies, including one that had been decapitated.

In Baghdad, gunmen killed one man and Iraqi police discovered four bodies, a police spokesman said.

Ahmad Fadham and Mudhafer al-Husaini contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Tikrit, Mosul and Kirkuk.

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