Bremer: Iraq still unsafe

A top US official has signalled that Iraq might secede from OPEC while the top US Iraq administrator has said an interim government should not be established before the country becomes safer

    The Iraqi oil ministry was the only
    official building that was secured
    by US forces after Baghdad fell

    It might be in Iraq's best interest to disregard quotas set by OPEC and export as much oil as is possible, the US adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Oil has told The Washington Post's Saturday edition.


    Phillip Carroll, former head of Royal Dutch Shell's US operations, also said that oil drilling and production contracts signed by the ousted Iraqi government with companies in Russia, China and France were potentially void or subject to renegotiation.


    With world energy markets anxious for any indication of the level of future Iraqi production, Carroll noted the country had historically been an "irregular" participant of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 


    "They have from time to time, because of compelling national interest, elected to opt out of the quota system and pursue their own path. ... They may elect to do the same thing," Carroll was quoted as saying.


    The Post also said Iraqi Oil Ministry officials are actively considering pulling the country out of OPEC and exporting as much crude as possible once oil fields return to full capacity.


    Most analysts believe it could take more than a year for the country to reach the level of production needed to meet current OPEC export quotas, the paper reported.


     Carroll did not identify any specific contracts that would be imperiled, but suggested that what he called the old system of preferential treatment whereby the Iraqi government awarded contracts to pro-Iraq nations would not be continued with under the new Iraqi administration.


    "There will have to be an evaluation by the ministry of those contracts and a determination of whether they were made in the best interests of the Iraqi people," Carroll said.


    "Certainly, where contracts are, shall we say, excessively beneficial to one party, and that party is not the Iraqi people, and there is a legal basis for not going forward, then I would expect that the ministry would want to have another look," he said.


    The US has come under criticism for awarding without consultation a major oil sector reconstruction contract in Iraq to a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company that current US Vice President Dick Cheney headed in the Nineties.


    Carroll rejected suggestions the United States was using its influence in Iraq to try to break OPEC.


    "In the final analysis, Iraq's role in OPEC or in any international organization is something that has to be left to an Iraqi government," Carroll said.


    But he said Iraqis were right to consider whether they wanted to remain in the oil cartel. 


    Meeting the opposition


    Paul Bremer has taken over from
    Jay Garner as Iraq's head

    Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator, held his first meeting with the seven political leaders likely to form the core of a new government on Friday and said they agreed on three priorities: restoring security, building democracy and rooting out the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.


    "It was a frank, open exchange - a very friendly and long discussion," he said.


    But an Iraqi politican who attended the meeting told the New York Times that all talk of an interim Iraqi administration is off.


    "I don't think they trust this group to function as a political leadership," he said. "And for us it is very difficult to participate in something that we have no control over. We don't want to be part of the blame committee when something goes wrong."

    Opposition leaders were "very respectful" to Bremer and Sawers, another participant was quoted as saying, "but I think everyone was also pretty forceful about the need to have full sovereignty for the Iraqis." A recurring question, he added, was, "Do you want to run this place, or should we?"

    No date was set for creating an interim authority, and no details about its powers and functions were discussed in the meeting, the Iraqis said. Bremer said he would meet with the opposition leaders for further discussions in two weeks.

    "They retracted what they said before," an Iraqi political figure said. The provisional government idea is gone, he said. As for the idea of convening a national assembly to select a government, he said, "there is no such thing anymore."

    Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said the views of US and Iraqi leaders were "very close to each other, and in some cases they are identical."


    Speaking on behalf of the seven Iraqis, pro-US Barazani said he is "confident that together, in partnership, we can overcome these challenges and difficulties and serve the people of Iraq."


    Also present at the meeting were Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress and Pentagon's favourite; Jalal Talabani, leader of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord; Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the brother of influential Shii Ayat Allah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim; Naseer al-Chaderchi and a representative of the Shia group al-Dawa.


    John Sawers, Britain's senior representative in Iraq, also attended the two-hour meeting at the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance's headquarters in Baghdad.


    Muslim Shia leaders are a major
    political force in Iraq

    "What we are doing is addressing the most urgent issues first," Sawers said. "The most urgent issue is that of security, and along with that the question of ensuring that the Baath Party cannot return in any shape or form."


    Britain and the United States are working with Iraqi political leaders, some of them fresh from exile, to assemble a transitional government for the country's immediate postwar future. But frustration is mounting.


    Iraq's capital has been overrun by robberies, looting and arson since US forces seized control a month ago. At night, gunfire echoes across the city of 5 million.


    "We have some urgent work to do together in restoring law and order all over Iraq," Bremer acknowledged.


    Bremer signed an order Friday banning members of the Baath Party's top four echelons from public office, whether in government, universities, hospitals or other institutions.


    As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party under Saddam _ a requirement for many civil-service jobs. Between 15,000 and 30,000 of them will be affected by the order, US officials say.    


    Sawers said all sides agreed "in principle" that a committee should be formed to prepare the way for a national conference to form a new interim government. But he said the details had yet to be worked out.


    "It's quite clear that you cannot transfer all powers onto some interim body because it will not have the strength or the resources to carry those responsibilities out," he said.


    Asked if the conference would take place at the end of the month, as originally indicated, Sawers said only: "There was agreement that we should aim to have a national conference as soon as we reasonably could do so."


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