|Iraq may supply gas to Europe via an extensive pipeline network connecting Syria and Turkey [GETTY]
Iraqi energy experts have told Al Jazeera that oil and gas fields in the western Anbar province may soon begin pumping gas to European markets.
Mukhtar al-Ani, an Iraqi oil consultant, said: "In early January, the Ministry of Oil held talks with a number of potential companies regarding development of the huge Akkas gas field in the north-western desert of Anbar province."
According to the ministry, Akkas, which lies 40km from the Syrian border, is believed to contain up to seven trillion cubic feet of gas, which accounts for six per cent of Iraq's estimated total of 112 trillion cubic feet. The field is capable of producing up to 500 million cubic feet per day if fully developed.
Akkas is also close to existing Syrian gas facilities.
"Iraq earlier signed a preliminary agreement with Syria to supply it with 50 million cubic feet of gas a day from the existing five wells in Akkas ... The Syrians are eager to revive this agreement," al- Ani said.
Keen to export
The Iraqi government is also keen to get the field operational as quickly as possible, using nearby Syria as an export route to Europe. Earlier this year, the oil ministry asked international energy giant Shell to undertake "a long-term production test" in the Akkas sector.
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Assem Jehad, a ministry spokesman confirmed that an agreement has been signed between the EU and Baghdad to provide European countries with natural gas from the Akkas fields.
He said: "Akkas will be opened for investment bids to the global oil companies throughout June 2008. In the final stage of bidding, the government will negotiate with five oil companies."
He explained that 35 or a prospective 120 major oil companies had qualified to work in the Iraqi oil block fields from north to south of Iraq.
"Shell is likely to be a top candidate for a deal to develop Akkas field. Shell has been active in Syria for 25 years and operates a joint venture with the Syrian Government with Chinese and Indian partners," al-Ani told Al Jazeera.
- The Nabucco pipeline links the Balkan states and Austria to Turkey.
- It will have a capacity to transport 31 billion cubic metres of gas a year.
- Construction of the pipeline is scheduled for completion in 2013.
- The pipeline will also carry Egyptian gas to Europe through the Arabian East Pipeline.
Prior to the March 2003 invasion, the Baghdad government had already drilled five wells in Akkas and was constructing a pipeline to run through the city of Al-Qaem to Syria.
The second stage of the project, which was halted when war broke out, was expected to carry gas through Syria and Turkey en route to Europe.
Tawfeeq Jasem, an Iraqi oil analyst, believes that gas demands in Europe have made Iraq a lucrative investment market for foreign energy companies.
"Iraq is of concern to the Europeans not only in the transport of oil and gas but in other strategic economic interests," he said.
In February 2008, Hussein al-Shahrastani, Iraq's oil minister met with EU officials in Brussels and affirmed his country's commitment to supply Europe with gas.
"He also confirmed that the Iraqi government is moving ahead in its plans to exploit new oil fields and develop the Akkas gas field near the Syrian border to transport gas from there to Europe via the Arabian East Pipeline," Jasem told Al Jazeera.
On 16 April, Nuri al-Maliki told the EU that Baghdad would sign several agreements to export natural gas to Europe through the 3300-km Nabucco pipeline which runs from the Caspian Sea via Turkey to several Balkan states and Austria.
"It is understood that Iraq is to export to Europe in the first stage around five billion cubic metres of natural gas a year from the Akkas gas field through the Arab Gas Pipeline, which passes through Syria and connects with the Nabucco line in Turkey," Jasem said.
But officials in the Anbar province are wary of lucrative oil and gas deals signed between Baghdad and the EU. Farhan al-Farhan, the mayor of Al-Qaem near the Syrian border, fears that powerful energy companies will reap most of the profit from Iraq's oil and gas wealth.
"They want the lion's share from Iraq, but we have told the government, and we support it in reducing the profit margin for the foreign companies," he said.
"It is the people of Anbar and the tribes around Akkas and the people of Iraq who should first get the most benefit of Iraqi gas being sold to Europe."