Baghdad, hoping for a lifting of United Nations trade sanctions, has started talks with oil companies in several countries, Iraqi Oil Minister Usama al-Hiti said yesterday.

Two French oil companies have said they are discussing oil exploration permits with Baghdad, but Mr. Hiti said more companies were involved in the talks over major oil fields in southern Iraq.

"Some of the companies are French," he told French state television FR3 in an interview. "We have the feeling that French companies are extremely serious."

"But we keep discussing with other companies as well," Hiti added.

He said any contract would depend upon a lifting of UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait.

France's Elf Aquitaine and Total SA previously confirmed they were holding preliminary talks with Iraq over exploration rights. They said no agreement could be reached until the UN trade embargo was lifted.

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