Kidnapped Oil Official Had Key Role

The Iraqi oil official kidnapped with four others Tuesday was in charge of Iraq's exploration and production, a key role especially for a Sunni, and a stark reminder that even the most needed aspect of Iraq's economy -- oil and the wealth it brings in -- is not immune from the horror of today's Iraq.

Abdel-Jabar al-Wagaa, a deputy minister and top assistant to the oil minister, was taken by a group of men in official uniforms and vehicles. There is no confirmation on the assailants, including whether these were from any Iraqi security force or militias dressed up.

Militias carried out a similar raid earlier this year at the Iraqi Finance Ministry. Tuesday's raid occurred in the afternoon, taken from their neighboring apartments in a housing complex of the State Oil Marketing Organization, where the other officials worked.

"This is a very sad story," former Oil Minister Issam al-Chalabi told UPI. He said he knew Wagaa, that the 62-year-old has a wife and other family. "He's been working in the ministry for quite some time now, over 30 years."

Chalabi said it is another in a series of blows to the ministry's expertise. "There's a continuous drain," he said. Wagaa, named deputy minister in 2004, may be a target because of his position, because he's a Sunni and not a Shiite Arab, or because of the tribe he hailed from, the Jibouri tribe from Mosul.

"Nobody can tell but it could be a combination of all these reasons," Chalabi said.

"This is really bad," a U.S. official familiar with Iraq oil issues told UPI on condition of anonymity. "This is a blow to the Oil Ministry. He was one of the few remaining Western-educated technocrats."

As a Sunni, Wagaa was in the minority in the new Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. Shiites make up the majority population in the country but were deprived of respective leadership roles under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni.

Sunnis have been routed out and excluded from the government, despite their expertise in technical issues, especially oil. The ranks in the ministry have been thinned of Sunnis and other technocrats, instead replaced by the connected and politicians.

Wagaa's position in the ministry was of heavy importance. The senior deputy minister in charge of upstream, all production, exploration, drilling and the North and South Oil Cos. were under his watch. He also had a role in the ongoing training sessions of oil officials and workers with international oil companies.

Iraq has 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves -- much of which are not being pumped -- and experts believe nearly as much to be discovered.

At least three of the four others kidnapped held high-level roles in the Iraqi company that sells the crude, the SOMO. Iraq sent an average 1.6 million barrels per day of oil to international market last year, bringing in more than $31 billion, which filled more than 90 percent of the federal budget.

Mahdi al-Naqib was in charge of researching what type of crude was available and who it should be sold to; Salah Abdul Qadar was the director general for selling oil to Europe; and Kamel al-Ob'eidy was a top-level SOMO public relations official. UPI could not determine the identity of the fourth abductee.

No one has officially taken responsibility for the act. Media accounts and officials are hinting at blaming the Mahdi Army, or rogue factions of it, which are led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. The incident took place near Sadr City, a poor Baghdad neighborhood of millions. But it could be a cross sect hit, by Sunnis, or any number of actors in the violent power struggle unfolding in Iraq and other parts of the country.

Details remain sketchy still. The uniforms may be police or Interior Ministry forces, both of which are infiltrated by loyalists to Shiite militias of the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the most powerful political parties in Baghdad and partner to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.

Considering the high profile of those captured, it likely was not a random snatch.

The perpetrators could have been allowed into the compound because they appeared to be official, or bribed their way in.

Less than three months ago armed men in police uniforms took five Britons from a Finance Ministry building, which is near the SOMO compound. They're still missing, as are many taken in a mass kidnapping Nov. 14, when the Mahdi Army was blamed for donning Interior Ministry garb and invading the Ministry of Higher Education.

Wagaa's kidnapping is the highest-profile job since last year, when in two separate instances the directors general of both the North Oil Co. and State Oil Projects Co. were kidnapped.

Neither has been found.

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