Oil Issues Punctuate Iraq's Constitutional Debate
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Baghdad today, at least nine people were killed in a suicide bombing near the Oil Ministry. Five of the dead were security guards who worked for the ministry. It's the latest in a series of attacks on oil workers and infrastructure, and it highlights tensions over Iraq's oil revenues and future development. Oil is one of the big issues in contention in Iraq's draft constitution. According to the document, regions that produce oil, the largely Kurdish north and the predominantly Shiite south, will have a much greater say in the distribution of the country's wealth. Some living in Baghdad and the oil-poor center of the country fear they will lose out. NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.
ANNE GARRELS reporting:
As far as oil goes, the constitution is a response to old wrongs. In the past, the oil regions of Iraq got little from their underground wealth with a bulk of the revenues enriching Saddam's regime, but the vague language of the new constitution still leaves much in the air. Rod Juan al-Sadi(ph), a senior official at the Oil Ministry, foresees lengthy political battles and legal wrangling the country can ill afford.
Mr. ROD JUAN AL-SADI (Senior Official, Iraqi Oil Ministry): The developed field which is the responsibility of the central government, the new fields to be developed, be it oil and gas, has to be agreed upon between the central government and the state government. This is an area where it can be troublesome in the future, the least to say.
GARRELS: In the past two and a half years, Iraq has had three interim governments, none of which has had the power to authorize contracts for new fields and refineries. Like it or not, al-Sadi says it's imperative a new constitution be in place so a permanent government can solve these problems.
Mr. AL-SADI: We can see the petroleum low or the rules and regulations of the international investment or international participation, be it in crude oil production or to increase the refining capacity.
GARRELS: The White House and other supporters of the 2003 war had anticipated an increase in Iraq's oil production. So far, capacity has not even reached its prewar levels. Export of crude from the north to Turkey is regularly disrupted by attacks. Because of continued electricity shortages, refineries are continually shut down. Iraqis are forced to use generators which eat up gasoline, increasing demand. Prices at the pump are political dynamite and remain low, much lower than in neighboring countries. So precious refined oil is smuggled out of the country. Iraq is now importing gas.
Mr. AL-SADI: It's a bad thing on the economy. It's the worse thing that can happen to Iraq.
GARRELS: And even with imports and recent alternate-day driving rules, there's still a shortage of gas as well as fuel for heating and cooking.
Mr. ABU NOR(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Taxi driver Abu Nor says he's been waiting for gas for hours and there won't be enough hours left in the day before curfew for him to make a living. Because of the rules, he won't be able to take his car out on the road for another day. The government has just added heating and cooking fuel to the Iraqis' monthly ration basket to ease the pain.
Mr. ALI MOHAMMED KODIM(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Ali Mohammed Kodim says the coupons for kerosine worked today but he's not sure there will be any heating fuel tomorrow, and he says no one will accept coupons for propane, demanding instead exorbitant sums the poor can't afford. Kodim has a shop that provides food rations. As he weighs out rice, he complains the government is three months behind. Dependent on oil revenues for its budget, the government has cut out essentials like flour, sugar and wheat and this at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Even under Saddam, Iraqis say they received more, not less, so they could break their daily fast with a decent meal.
Mr. KODIM: (Foreign language spoken)
GARRELS: Whatever its shortcomings, Kodim says he's going to vote for the constitution in the hope that somehow this document will bring stability, but oil official Rod Juan al-Sadi warns it will still be years before oil output increases significantly.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.
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