New disputes stall Iraq oil bill


BAGHDAD – Attempts to pass a key oil law sought by the U.S. were snarled once more Wednesday by deep differences among Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders, delaying parliament debate despite the prime minister’s claims of a breakthrough.

Despite heavy U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has struggled for months to get members of his coalition together behind the bill, part of a long-delayed political package that the Bush administration hopes will reconcile Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority with the government, reduce support for the insurgency and ease the country’s violence.

Parliament failed to start debate on the bill Wednesday, despite al-Maliki’s announcement the day before that it would. The acting speaker, Khaled al-Attiya, said he expected it to be sent Thursday to the legislature, where it would be put to a committee.

Al-Maliki said Tuesday that his Cabinet had unanimously approved a draft of the law, raising hopes that major progress had been made. But almost immediately Sunni and Kurdish members of his coalition said they were not on board.

The Sunni organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars, issued a religious edict blasting the bill as “religiously forbidden” and warned that those who back it “anger God for usurping public money.”

Al-Maliki referred to the challenges facing his government during remarks at Fourth of July festivities at the U.S. Embassy but pledged to “continue to work hand in hand in cooperation to achieve our goals in Iraq.”

Al-Maliki’s allies hold a majority in parliament, but pushing the bill through without the support of all parties would undercut the wider aim of reconciliation.

Wrangling over the bill is so tough because it hits on the most contentious question over the future shape of Iraq – how to balance power between the central government and the country’s regions, divided on sectarian and ethnic lines. The demands of each side – Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish -for the bill are far apart, and often mutually exclusive.

The law aims to regulate Iraq’s oil industry and will determine the central government’s role, and companion legislation that is nearly finalized sets how oil wealth will be distributed among regions.

Sunnis, centered in parts of the country with few proven reserves, fear Shiites and Kurds in the oil-rich south and north will monopolize profits from the industry – and so want a stronger federal role to ensure a Sunni say in how the fields are run.

The Kurds, in particular, want control of potentially lucrative future discoveries of reserves in their enclave.

Further complicating the negotiations are other political disputes. Al-Maliki’s main Sunni coalition partner, the Iraqi Accordance Front, was not present when the Cabinet approved the draft because it is boycotting meetings over an arrest warrant issued against the Sunni culture minister.

An Accordance Front leader warned Wednesday that no draft should be considered until the Sunnis sign on.

Al-Maliki may have pushed the bill through the Cabinet in an attempt to force the Accordance Front to end its boycott.

But the Kurds also objected, fearing concessions had been made to the Sunnis.

Meanwhile, the Shiite party loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which opposes too much decentralization, rejected the draft, saying it “left nothing of Iraq’s unity.”

Al-Maliki can still put together enough votes to get the legislation through parliament, where the Accordance Front, the Sadrists and the Kurdish parties hold 127 of the 275 seats.

The oil bill is the first of the political benchmarks that Bush has pressed al-Maliki to meet, along with opening jobs to Sunnis who supported Saddam, amending the constitution to satisfy Sunni aspirations and holding local elections. The Iraqis pledged to meet the benchmarks by the end of last year but failed due to political haggling and the security crisis.

Besides bringing together Iraqis, U.S. officials are also hoping progress on the benchmarks will show the American public that Bush’s strategy is working.

As U.S. troops in some bases marked the July 4 holiday, a soldier was killed during combat operations in southern Baghdad, the military said, without providing details. His death brought to 3,585 the number of members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003. according to an Associated Press count.