He also said that Lukoil's experience "increases chances of this company winning at the free and open tenders that will be held".

Deal renewal

Lukoil had an agreement with Saddam Hussein's government to drill at West Qurna, and since Saddam's overthrow and the US-led invasion has been angling to get renewed access to the field.

Al-Shahristani said: "The Iraqi oil ministry has documented information that the contract was suspended as it was not implemented."

Earlier, al-Shahristari met Viktor Khristenko, the Russian energy minister, and Vagit Alekperov, Lukoil CEO, who returned to Moscow from holiday especially for the meeting.

Lukoil said in a statement: "They discussed joint projects, in particular West Qurna-2".
 
No further details of the meeting were provided.

All previous oil contracts in Iraq are due to be reviewed in accordance with proposed new legislation that aims to divide the country's oil wealth among Sunnis, Shia, Kurds and other Iraqi groups.

With Iraq's oil infrastructure frequently targeted by anti-government fighters, the country has struggled to restore oil production to prewar levels of about 2.5 million to three million barrels a day.

Unexplored reserves

As of last May, production stood at about 1.9 million barrels a day, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Al-Shahristani said the country has 80 proven fields and another 400 fields have been identified as possibly containing oil.

Production could reach up to four million barrels a day by 2010 and even six million daily by 2012, he said.

Iraq is believed to have recoverable oil reserves of 115 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia, with about two-thirds in the southern part of the country, according to the statistical and research agency within the US energy department.

Some geologists believe the country may have another 100bn barrels in its western desert region, which has not been explored.