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Iraqi lawmakers argue for caution in shaping oil law

They say that draft law has many holes, and that foreign pressure only draws ire.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2007


Iraqi lawmakers offer varying predictions for when the long-awaited oil law might pass parliament: in a month, by August, perhaps by fall.

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The White House envisions passage this month of the law to share revenue among Iraq's sectarian populations and regulate foreign investment in oil. Congress wants quick approval as a sign of Iraq's seriousness about national reconciliation.

Iraqi legislators, however, have expressed strong concerns about holes in the legislation that, they say, could adversely affect the country in the long run. Most acknowledge the need for a law that will modernize an all-important industry. But, they say, they are creating a structure that will go to the heart of Iraq's future identity – and thus cannot rush the process. "It will pass, but it still takes much time and much negotiation," says Bayazid Hassan, a Kurdish member of parliament who warily predicts a late July passage. "We, too, want a law to settle this very important matter for Iraq, but it is too important for us to do this according to the schedule of others."

Still, the legislature appears to be making progress on other key benchmarks.

•The parliament's constitutional reform committee voted Tuesday to submit a set of revisions to lawmakers next week – technically meeting a constitution-imposed deadline of mid-May for presenting the draft changes. But the controversial issues still to be debated include the right of provinces to form powerful regions similar to the one the Kurds have in the north, and references to Iraq's Arab identity. The Sunnis reject the former, while the Kurds oppose the latter.

•Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi announced that proposals for revising the de-Baathification Law would be submitted to parliament next week. Approval could allow thousands of former Baathists to return to state jobs and quiet Sunni threats to pull their ministers out of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Ryan Crocker, the new US ambassador to Iraq, says he sees "an awareness and a focus on the part of the Iraqi leadership" over the last week that he had not detected earlier. Citing a succession of meetings involving Iraq's top political leadership "that I'm not sure we've seen in the past," Mr. Crocker says he sees "steps in the direction" of national reconciliation.

Those include negotiations on the oil law, expected to pick up pace next week when representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government arrive in Baghdad to iron out differences with central-government authorities.

But, he adds, "the Washington clock runs a lot faster than the Baghdad clock."

And the oil law, already a repository of Iraqi sensitivities to sectarian divisions and decades of foreign exploitation, is increasingly mired in a Washington-Baghdad tug of war over Iraq's political progress.

As Congress continues its search for a way to fund the Iraq war that is not simply a blank check, the idea of setting "benchmarks" for Iraqi political action is gaining support. President Bush has spoken approvingly of war-funding legislation that calls on Iraq to move on issues the US believes would address its sectarian divisions and boost reconciliation.

Those benchmarks include revision of the de-Baathification law that has barred members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from employment, constitutional reforms promised to the minority Sunni population, provincial elections, and the oil law.

Republicans and Democrats are piling on Iraq's lawmakers for not moving faster. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, in a recent CNN interview, called the Baghdad government "a huge disappointment" and added, "I don't know what their problem is."

But when it comes to the oil law, their "problems" are many, Iraqi lawmakers say.