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Middle east

Black gold clogs up Iraqi politics

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Clea CAULCUTT

Latest update : 2009-07-31

One day after his decisive re-election, Kurdish President Massud Barzani has announced the start of negotiations with Baghdad authorities. The negotiations are expected to determine the future of Kirkuk and of its oilfields.

In Kirkuk, it is often said that oil has brought nothing but suffering. "Kirkuk is like a camel," says local councillor Mohammed al-Jubouri. "The camel carries gold and riches on its back, but ends up eating spiny shrubs scavenged in the desert."


And yet the Iraqi city’s residents sit on oil reserves worth billions of dollars, an estimated 13% of Iraq’s proven resources.


There - and in neighbouring Kurdish provinces - oil dominates local politics and the stand-off with Iraq’s central government on local oil reserves shows little sign of easing.


The future of Kirkuk and of its oilfields hangs on negotiations between re-elected Kurdish President Massud Barzani and the central government in Baghdad.


Mounting tensions were evident on July 30, when the Iraqi government fired Fayyad Hassan Nima, a key executive of the South Oil Company, for having publicly opposed the foreign takeover of the company’s oil fields.

Negotiations begin

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani’s recent re-election, with 57.34 percent of votes, could change the future of Kurdish oil. Barzani has already announced that negotiations are to begin with Baghdad authorities in order to “resolve all problems” and avoid an armed conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

These elections gave the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) an absolute majority in the regional parliament.

Both the KDP and PUK want to absorb Kirkuk into their largely autonomous Kurdish territory. The city and its oil reserves are currently governed by Baghdad authorities, who are reluctant to alter this organisation. Facing this KDP-PUK alliance is, for the first time, a genuine opposition force with the Noucherwan Moustapha’s Goran (meaning 'Change' in Kurdish) list garnering 23.57 percent of the vote.

The day the results were announced, Iraq’s parliament laid out a plan for the future of Iraqi oil, approving a draft law that would set up a new National Oil Company. The Company, which will be in charge of the regional and national oil exploitation strategy, will not be operational until legislation on the distribution of the country’s energy resources is adopted.

Autonomy clouds relations with Baghdad


French historian Edouard Metenier told FRANCE 24 that Kurdish leaders are unlikely to scale back their demands. While Kurdish leaders have claimed oil-rich Kirkuk since 2003, “they are now pushing into other areas such as Mosul in the north and Khanaqin in the east,” he said, warning that such “advances have caused clashes with the central Iraqi government and its military.”


Meanwhile, Iraqi leaders have also failed to reach an agreement over legislation governing the oil industry, a draft of which allows production share agreements with foreign companies, a contentious issue for nationalist Iraqis, and details how oil revenues are distributed.


It is unlikely, though, that any agreement will be reached before next year, said Didier Houssin, an International Energy Agency director, in an interview with FRANCE 24.


“A project has been in the pipelines since last year, but it’s unrealistic that an agreement will be reached before 2010 due to upcoming elections and opposition among executives in state oil companies,” said Housssin. Meanwhile, Kurdistan and Baghdad play the blame-game over signing of oil contracts with foreign firms.


To date, however, the Kurdish autonomous region has struck up more than 30 profit-sharing contracts with foreign companies, taking a swipe at Baghdad, who says such deals are illegal.


Western energy giants on the sidelines


In the absence of post-invasion oil legislation, Baghdad is nonetheless seeking to strike up service contracts with foreign firms to boost crude output, currently estimated at 2.4 million barrels per day. In a surprising move, thirsty oil giants walked away from an auction on Iraq’s ample oil and gas reserves on June 30, complaining Iraqi officials were too tightfisted.


Only one contract was struck with British Petrolium (BP) and its partner, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), to develop Iraq’s second largest oilfield, Rumaila, under terms energy analysts say are far from sweet.


BP and CNPC will be paid two dollars for each barrel of oil that they extract in Rumaila as part of their service contracts. They have also pledged to increase production from one million barrels per day to 2.85 million barrels per day within six years, in a relatively hostile environment.


“South Oil Company [Iraqi state company] workers publicly said that [an agreement with a foreign firm] was not necessary in Rumaila,” said Francis Perrin of the Paris-based Arab Petroleum Research Center, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “BP is not entering friendly territory, nobody is going to give them a red-carpet welcome,” he said.


But at a time when the Iraqi budget deficit reaches at least 18 billion dollars, as published in the Los Angeles Times, the Iraqi government says foreign investment and expertise are necessary to boost oil production.


But until those laws are passed, the Iraq oil ministry's steps to renew the energy sector will be shrouded by legal doubts, as Iraqi members of parliament are currently threatening to block the ministry's recent deal over Rumaila.


During the June 30 auction, the oil ministry also sought to sell off two fields in the contentious Kirkuk area, drawing ire from Kurdish leaders who said they should have been consulted beforehand. And quite predictably, the two Kirkuk fields drew no bidders.


Date created : 2009-07-31