Opposition to American Oil Grab is Unifying Iraqis

U.S. President Bush may be right: Iraq's oil law, although highly controversial, could be a "benchmark for reconciliation."

When Iraq's council of ministers last week suddenly approved the law, critics of various stripes united in opposition. Shiite and Sunni political parties alike denounced it, vowed to defeat it, even threatened to ensure Parliament can't take it up. It is seen by some as weakening the central government and giving too much to foreign companies.

Iraq depends on the sale of oil for the vast majority of its federal budget. It's infrastructure badly needs investment to boost production. A law governing the world's third largest reserves -- and a sizable amount of natural gas -- has been as elusive as security there.

In one attack alone Saturday in the northern city of Tuz Khurmato, nearly five times as many were killed than at the Virginia Tech massacre in the United States.

In the midst of a war zone of more than four years old, the Bush administration itself could be the most divisive agent. And, it's the White House's support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration, as well as the heavy pressure on it to pass the oil law, that could draw together the fractured country.

The fate of and fight for control over Iraq's oil is the same for the country itself. At issue is to what extent the federal government, as stewards of Iraq as a whole, will decide oil policy. Local governments, especially the Kurdistan Regional Government, disapprove of strong central control; their suspicions rest on memories of Saddam's Iraq, where the central government's uneven investment hand benefited only some, and its heavy hand brutalized the rest.

Much more oil is in the ground than being pumped now, that's likely why a law governing the oil has been held up in the United States as the tool for grand compromise, leading toward the path of more hand-shaking.

President Bush himself, as well as U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in separate meetings in Washington and Baghdad are all regularly urging the passage of the law.

KRG and federal government negotiations on the oil law began last summer. Deals were reached and stalled since late February. Then Tuesday the ministers approved it.

"It has to be a package of laws in which all the Iraqis can agree, which is why it is a benchmark of national reconciliation," a State Department official told UPI in May, adding that's why revenue sharing is the main emphasis of the U.S. government. Revenue sharing would be decided in a revenue sharing law, not the oil law, two of four laws that comprise the package. The revenue sharing law is to be taken up this week by the ministerial council.

The oil law already faced opposition from Iraq oil experts -- including two of the law's three original authors -- as well as the powerful oil unions. The unions say they're willing to stop production and exports if the law gives foreign oil companies too much access to or ownership of the oil.

"The last four years have witnessed repeated attempts at dismantling the basis for any well planned resources management for the whole nation, only to replace it with market oriented destabilization and fragmentation policies that are at variance and in competition with each other and the national interest," said Tariq Shafiq, an Iraqi now living in Amman and London, tasked last spring by the Iraq oil minister to co-write the law. It was subsequently altered in negotiations and he now opposes it.

"Would this law really optimize the management of the oil and gas? Would it really unite the country?," Shafiq said. "I believe sincerely it is naive to think it would."

"It's really important to challenge the notion that the law is going to unite 'warring factions,'" said Ewa Jasiewicz of the London-based campaigner Platform. "The language in which the law is being couched and reported is incredibly sectarian and is creating de facto Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite regional power blocks in the imagination and political landscape and, in the process, the conditions for the creating of these kinds of facts on the ground."

Many political parties opposed Maliki's government before the oil law. As security in Iraq diminishes, so does the political strength of Maliki's coalition of Shiites -- many backed by Iran -- and Kurds.

The ministerial council just barely had quorum last week because of boycotts of key Shiite allies and Sunni parties. Parliament was supposed to take up the oil law Wednesday but boycotts and chronic absenteeism scrapped that.

The Sadr Movement and the Iraqi Accord Front now say they may end the boycott specifically to challenge the law. The former held mass rallies over the weekend in opposition to Maliki. IAF says it will call for a vote of no confidence in him.

The Association of Muslim Scholars issued an edict against any Parliamentarian approving the law. Off the record talk by campaigners, unionists and oil experts express the need to turn up the heat of opposition.

Last week the Iraq Freedom Congress -- whose motto is "Working for a Democratic, Secular and Progressive Alternative to both the U.S. Occupation and Political Islam in Iraq" -- teamed up with the new Anti Oil Law Frontier to rally masses against the law.

All the while a coalition in Iraq grows. It encompasses Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and secularists. Its goal is to keep Iraq together. But it also wants an end to the U.S. occupation.

"They are also strongly opposed both to the terrorist forces of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and to the growing influence of Iran in Iraq," Robert Dreyfuss wrote of the opposition in The Nation.

Despite sharing two key tenets of the war on terrorism, the United States isn't supporting the coalition.

State Department Iraq Coordinator David Satterfield, answering questions in March about what has been self-termed the "National Salvation Government," vowed support for Maliki's government. "It is not helpful to talk about alternatives," he said.

But alternatives may force themselves into the conversation, especially on the heels of the oil law.

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