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In Iraq, Combating Oil Corruption, Staving Off Fears of a Kurdish-Arab War

A round-up of the most important news out of Iraq.
 
 
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One might call them the Batman and Robin of the Bayji oil refinery.
Together Ali al-Obaidi, director-general of the Northern Oil Company, and his sidekick, Colonel Adil al-Jamali, commander of the Bayji oil police, have become a formidable crime-fighting duo at Iraq’s largest oil refinery, Anna Fitfield reports for the Financial Times.

“Everyone knows this place had the worst corruption in Iraq – they said $1bn a year was being lost here,” says Mr Obaidi at his office in the refinery 190km north of Baghdad. “Gangs, mafias, al-Qaeda, everyone was trying to steal from this depot.”

The arrival of Mr Obaidi and Col Jamali at the refinery’s production facility in late 2007 began to put an end to much of the theft.

“When I first came to the refinery I found guards were bringing their own containers to work to steal gasoline, and they did not respect their bosses because their bosses were also stealing,” Col Jamali says. “Corruption was like a cancer in the system, so I fired hundreds of men, to change the blood.”

Iraq’s Oil Ministry will award a service contract to develop a prized oil field in southern Iraq next month, Sinan Salaheddin reports for The Associated Press.

Italy’s Eni SpA, Spain’s Repsol and Japan’s Nippon Oil are competing for the service contract to develop the Nasiriyah oil field. The contract is designed to offer engineering, procurement and construction services.
Iraq’s deputy oil minister, Ahmed al-Shamaa also divulged the ministry’s plans to develop part of another prized oil field in central Iraq - the East Baghdad field.

Turkey’s pipeline company Botas is in talks with Sharjah-based Dana Gas on the proposed project to send Iraq’s natural gas north to Turkey. Iraq Directory reports the gas would feed the proposed Nabucco pipeline, a project backed by the Europe and the United States as a non-Russian gas supply. Nabucco has yet to commence because, in part, of a lack of supply commitments. There’s no counting on Iraq, however, for that guarantee, as the country has yet to determine how it will develop its natural gas resources. Iraq is flaring most of its natural gas, almost all produced during oil production. It is in talks with Shell to create a joint venture dedicated to natural gas, and is offering gas fields for international bidders. Iraqi residents, and current and future power plants and other domestic industry are in need of gas, which will make exporting the resource a hard political sell until the needs at home are met.

Norwegian oil firm DNO says it has “commenced the remaining work” to hook its Tawke oil field in the KRG contract to the pipeline sending Iraqi crude to Turkey. In a end 2008 results statement, the company says “the initial drilling phase on the Tawke field was completed as the gross initial cumulative well capacity from the field is significantly in excess of the 50,000 bopd capacity of the Tawke facilities.”

As a result of the good progress made on the Tawke development during 2008 we are now preparing for increased production at low cost from a substantial reserve base, without further investments. This put us in a good position to meet the challenges and opportunities in today’s market
- Helge Eide, Managing Director of DNO International ASA.

Today, Iraqi Navy and coalition forces are working together to protect the platforms from harm. By Dec. 2009, the Iraqi Navy will take full responsibility for the Khwar Al Amaya Oil Terminal and the security of a proportion of the nation’s oil wealth, according to a Multi-National Force-Iraq statement.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last Thursday said that Iraq will establish open relations with France in the fields of armament, oil, in addition to other sectors, Voices of Iraq reports.

Spanish government showed readiness to present loan to Iraq to buy an electricity station to revive marshes in Missan province, according to a release from Iraq’s National Media Center.

British forces in Basra are less focused on security and more on economic development, the BBC’s Jim Muir reports as he embeds with British forces giving Japanese businessmen a tour of their investments:

As part of that revised mandate, here they were ferrying a delegation of Japanese economic officials around the south, where Tokyo is pumping in hundred of millions of dollars in soft loans. …

We had landed at the Basra oil refinery, where the visitors were given a warm welcome by director-general Tha’ir Ibrahim and his staff.

“Now that security is so much better, we’re launching projects to increase the refinery capacity by about 35% and to upgrade the product specification,” said Mr Ibrahim.

“The tank farm [oil depot] here was 60% destroyed during the war with Iran in the 1980s, and then hit again by the Coalition during the occupation of Kuwait in 1990.”

“Now the Coalition are helping us rehabilitate the plant. That’s life!”

The Japanese delegation were as delighted as their hosts at being able finally to visit projects which they have been involved in from afar for years, without being able to see them on the ground for security reasons.

“I really feel the big change over the past year, and I feel really safe here,” said delegation leader Hideki Matsunaga, who heads the Middle East department at the Japanese International Co-operation Agency. “Of course there are still risks and some incidents and so on, but that’s the same all over the world.”

Elections & Politics

Iraq’s Kurdish-Arab tensions threaten to escalate into war, Leila Fadel reports for McClatchy Newspapers. Iraq’s Jan. 31 provincial elections have been hailed as a sign that the country is putting its violent past behind it, is moving toward democracy and no longer is in need of a large U.S. military force. Along a 300-mile strip of disputed territory that stretches across northern Iraq, however, the elections have rekindled the longstanding hostility between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, and there are growing fears that war could erupt.

Al Hadbaa, an Arab nationalist party with some Kurdish and other members that vowed to retake disputed territory from the Kurdish security forces, halt Kurdish expansion and eject Kurdish militias, won 47 percent of the vote in predominantly Arab Nineveh, according to the preliminary election results. That means the Kurds will lose control of the provincial council.

Meanwhile, Voice of America reports the prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan regional government says the United States must help resolve pending Kurdish issues before withdrawing from Iraq. Nechirvan Barzani appealed for U.S. support (last) week on the constitutional article (Article 140) governing territorial disputes, and the oil and gas law.

(editor’s note: while Barzani’s comments warrant mention, VOA isn’t too accurate on details, such as its insistence that revenue sharing disputes have derailed the oil law.)

Rahmat al-Salaam reports for Asharq Alawsat an Iraqi MP close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki says that statements made by Nechirvan Barzani, Kurdistan Region prime minister, about a war breaking out between Arabs and Kurds after the American withdrawal from Iraq, are “a disservice to the political situation in the country.”

With election results officially in, the best place to turn as usual is Reidar Visser at Historiae.org, and he includes a breakdown of Prime Minister Maliki’s province by province victories.

Visser writes:

After today’s official release by the Iraqi elections commission of the seat allocation in the new Iraqi provincial councils elected on 31 January, the process of forming new coalitions can begin in earnest. …

The new councils will meet within 15 days to elect their new officials, and new coalitions will have to be formed in this period. Precisely because of the relatively homogenous political map now after the seat allocation, the ongoing negotiations among party elites in Baghdad could have enormous significance.

Allies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will take control of the southern oil hub of Basra after winning 20 out of 36 provincial council seats in local elections last month, Khalid al-Ansary reports for Reuters. Six of the seats allocated to Maliki’s State of Law coalition were assigned to women, Usama al-Ani, deputy head of the independent electoral commission, told a news conference.

Following the poor performance of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) – also known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — in recent parliamentary elections, Sa’ad Salloum of Niqash sat down with Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Vice-President of Iraq and a leading SIIC member, to discuss the election and the SIIC response.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s growing post-election strength means opponents – and once allies – the Kurdistan Alliance and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq parties are looking at ways to limit his power, if not see him removed from his post, Ma’ad Fayad reports for Asharq Alawsat.

Kuwait’s deputy prime minister will go to Iraq in March in what will be the first high-level visit of a Kuwaiti official since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of the tiny Gulf state, Aseel Kami reports for Reuters.

President Jalal Talabani agreed last Tuesday to share power within his Kurdish party to avoid a split which would have weakened the group ahead of polls in northern Iraq. Agence France-Presse reports Talabani, who is chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), “accepted the demands of the five leaders who submitted their resignations, so as to prevent them leaving the party.” Kosrat Rassoul, who is vice president of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, said he was resigning along with four members of the political office. Efforts to fight corruption and improve democracy in both the regional government and the PUK were among the issues in dispute.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, met Iraqi leaders and boosted economic links during a surprise visit, as a key opponent of the US-led invasion joined rebuilding efforts, Agence-France Presse reports.

On the heels of a strong showing for his political party in recent provincial elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is reaching out to industrialized nations in an effort to help turn around his war-torn nation, Trenton Daniel reports for McClatchy Newspapers. ”Iraq needs construction. Iraq needs investment. Iraq needs infrastructure,” said Maliki’s close advisor, Sadiq al Rikabi, who added that another high-ranking European official would arrive in the coming days. “We need to deal with industrialized nations to rebuild Iraq.”

Steinmeier, on the first visit to Baghdad by a German foreign minister in two decades, held talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari.

Before heading home, Steinmeier stopped in the KRG to officially open a consulate there. “We are very pleased by this historic visit and invite Germany to participate in rebuilding the Region,” KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said at the ceremony.

Of course, Germany has already been represented in Iraq’s Kurdish region:

Iraqonomics

Iraqi lawmakers will resume work on approving the oil producing country’s 2009 budget, despite failing once more last Thursday to select a new parliament speaker, Waleed Ibrahim and Aseel Kami report for Reuters.

Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only deepwater port, is bustling with activity. A large proportion of the country’s imports pass through its docks but, as a critical artery for the nation, it offers a glimpse into the state of Iraq’s faltering economy after years of sanctions and war. While imports flow in, there are no goods going in the opposite direction; many of its outdated cranes do not work; and it is far behind the rest of the world in terms of the size of vessels it can accommodate, Andrew England reports for the Financial Times.

Security & Society

The trial of the Iraqi television journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush was adjourned after 90 minutes on Thursday until March 12. But the brief appearance of the journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, who has been incarcerated since he threw the shoes during a news conference in Baghdad on Dec. 14, was enough to trigger applause and shouting both in the courtroom and in the hallways outside, Campbell Robertson reports for The New York Times. The law under which Mr. Zaidi has been charged applies to offenses against a foreign leader on a formal visit; if the visit is found to be informal, a largely technical point, it will cast the matter onto less certain legal ground.

McClatchy Newspapers’ Trenton Daniel reports of the trial when Iraqi journalist Muntathar al Zaidi took the stand Thursday, he said that he hadn’t planned to hurl his shoes at President George W. Bush, but the sight of the smirking leader at a Baghdad news conference got the best of him. “He had an icy smile with no blood or spirit,” said Zaidi, who was enclosed in a wooden pen. “At that moment, I only saw Bush, and the whole world turned black. I was feeling the blood of innocent people moving under his feet.”

Four prisoners who were being held at the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have been sent back to their home country, Iraq, where they are being interrogated, Marc Santora reports for The New York Times. “The government is reviewing their files to see if there are any charges against them,” said Wijdan Mikhail Salim, the minister of human rights. If they are not found guilty of any crimes, she said, they will be released.

Alive in Bagdad: Hospitals Improve Slowly

In this episode of Alive in Baghdad, we talk to several Iraqis: doctors, patients and hospital administrators, each of whom offers us a unique, yet notably hopeful, perspective on Iraq’s health care system.

Iraq’s wars and crises over recent years and decades have left over one and a half million children as orphans, disabled or with special needs, Hussein al-Shummari reports for Niqash. Today, in the ‘new’ Iraq, these children are struggling to find a path to a better future as medical facilities and government assistance remain woefully inadequate.

Commanders of the former army have set several conditions for the government to meet before considering reconciliation. Azzaman reports on top of their demands come the cancellation of a notorious law called debaathification and ridding the current armed forces of sectarian affiliations.

“We only want a normal life,” says Um Qasim, sitting in a bombed out building in Baghdad. She and others around have been saying that for years, Dahr Jamail reports for Inter Press Service. Um Qasim lives with 13 family members in a brick shanty on the edge of a former military intelligence building in the Mansoor district of Baghdad. Five of her children are girls. Homelessness is not easy for anyone, but it is particularly challenging for women and girls.

Turkey is likely to play a prominent role as the US begins to remove thousands of tons of equipment and supplies from Iraq over the next year or so. Gordon Lubold reports for The Christian Science Monitor the American military has been quietly shipping construction materials, food, fuel, and other nonlethal items into Iraq through Turkey using a two-lane commercial border crossing known as the Habur Gate in southeastern Turkey.

The war in Iraq isn’t over. The main events may not even have happened yet, Thomas E. Ricks reports for The Washington Post:

Many of those closest to the situation in Iraq expect a full-blown civil war to break out there in the coming years. “I don’t think the Iraqi civil war has been fought yet,” one colonel told me. Others were concerned that Iraq was drifting toward a military takeover. Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen worried that the classic conditions for a military coup were developing — a venal political elite divorced from the population lives inside the Green Zone, while the Iraqi military outside the zone’s walls grows both more capable and closer to the people, working with them and trying to address their concerns.