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Iraqi oil minister Al Uloum back at work after quitting

(Reuters) / 11 January 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s oil minister has returned to work, a week after resigning in protest against fuel price hikes, aided by support from the president and the most powerful Shia political leader.

Ibrahim Bahr Al Uloum’s return for a probable four-year term appears part of intense partisan wrangling over the formation of a full-term government following the December 15 election to replace the interim administration.

“He is back to work now and has already headed many meetings,” oil ministry spokesman Asim Jihad told Reuters yesterday.

Oil industry sources said Uloum, appointed as part of the interim cabinet that took office in April, had won backing from top Iraqi leaders.

“The talks he held with the top leaders to go back to his job touched also on the fact that he is welcomed for a second term,” one industry source said.

Uloum, from a prominent Shia family, had been ordered to take a month’s leave by Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari after opposing increases in fuel prices introduced last month under a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

He was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi.

But Uloum has since met other senior leaders including President Jalal Talabani, whose Kurdish bloc is a key element in the ruling coalition, and Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, leader of SCIRI, which, with Jaafari’s rival Dawa party, forms the backbone of the Shia Islamist Alliance bloc.

Talabani, Hakim and others gave Uloum their backing, an aide to Uloum said.

A second oil industry source said Uloum, an Islamist, had a better chance of staying on in the new government than Chalabi, another Shia but a secularist, and once a favourite of Washington.

“Many officials will be more comfortable in dealing with Uloum rather than Chalabi,” a senior Iraqi government official said.

Chalabi broke with the Alliance to run on a separate ticket in last month’s election but appears to have failed to win any seats in parliament. Final results are due within days.

The government official said the future of the oil ministry’s leadership would be clearer once power-brokering begins among rival factions in a week or so, once the Eid Al Adha holidays are over.

“It will depend on who else wants the job,” the official said, adding that much would also depend on how many parties were involved in the power-sharing negotiations. “It depends who will fight for it and on other names appearing.”

Shrinking exports

The wrangling comes at a bad time for Iraq’s oil industry.

December crude exports were the lowest since the 2003 war at 1.1 million barrels per day due, cutting Iraq’s sole significant independent source of hard currency desperately needed for rebuilding.

Repeated sabotage, combined with poor project management and political instability, has hampered Iraq’s aim to increase output to three million bpd, last seen in 1990.

Baghdad increased state-controlled prices of petrol and diesel by up to 200 per cent last month angering Iraqis used to heavily subsidised prices. The increase was accompanied by an oil shortage in the capital.

“Everybody knows it is a sensitive time for Iraq, not just for the oil ministry, but it is oil that can help us stand on our feet again,” a senior government official said.

“If the leaders ignore that and drag the oil ministry into their political games then God knows where the country will be heading for in these coming four years.”

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