By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 31, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 -- As a fuel crisis deepened in Iraq, the government replaced its oil minister with controversial Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, whose poor performance in the Dec. 15 elections was a setback in his recent attempt at political rehabilitation.
The oil minister, Ibrahim Bahr Uloom, was put on a mandatory, month-long leave. He had previously threatened to resign over the government's recent decision to increase gasoline prices sharply, a move that has outraged motorists and sparked attacks on gas stations and fuel convoys.
Violence has escalated across Iraq since the elections. On Friday, two U.S. soldiers were killed, one by a bomb south of Baghdad and another by small-arms fire in the western city of Fallujah. Two mortar shells hit near a bus station in the capital, killing five people and wounding 24, police at the scene said.
Threats by insurgents seizing on the unpopularity of the gasoline price increase led to a shutdown this month of the country's most productive oil refinery, in Baiji, north of Baghdad. Assim Jihad, an Oil Ministry spokesman, said the shutdown would cost $20 million a day until the refinery reopened. Meanwhile, foul winter weather has halted oil exports from the southern city of Umm Qasr, Iraq's only major seaport. Many of Iraq's largest power plants, already struggling to meet even a fraction of the country's energy demands, run on refined fuels.
"If these issues are not solved soon, the country will be facing an uncontrollable situation," Jihad said. "Dr. Chalabi will be here for the short term, but this will need to be solved by the new government, by the Ministry of Defense and by the coalition forces."
Chalabi, whose government portfolio already includes heading the country's energy committee and overseeing security for oil infrastructure such as refineries and pipelines, will temporarily take the reins of Iraq's only major industry. He had briefly led the Oil Ministry earlier this year while the current government was being assembled.
Jihad suggested that Uloom would probably resign rather than return, meaning Chalabi's appointment would last until the parties that prevailed in the recent elections formed a new government.
Negotiations toward that end continued Friday in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah between Abdul Aziz Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a dominant Shiite Muslim party, and Kurdish leaders. Also Friday, an ally of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political followers joined the Supreme Council's election ticket, said Shiite parties should pursue an alliance with Iraq's Sunni Arabs, rather than with Kurds.
Iraq's leaders have said no major decisions would be made while the composition of a new governing coalition was being determined.
"I don't think there will be any drastic changes," said Chalabi aide Haidar Moussawi when asked about Chalabi's intentions for his new post. "But I will say we have seen a lot of problems facing the industry with security and weather, and the focus will be on trying to get things under control and exports back to a level Iraq can do."
Once tabbed by some U.S. officials as a future leader of Iraq, Chalabi suffered a series of blows following the U.S.-led invasion, beginning when intelligence he provided to the Pentagon about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction proved false. He was later accused of passing U.S. secrets to the government of Iran. But in recent months, several U.S. officials have praised Chalabi's technical expertise and ability to facilitate agreements among feuding factions within the government.
"He has proven himself quite capable and experienced in dealing with all aspects of Iraq's energy sector and is well-qualified for this position," a U.S. official said on the condition that he not be named because he was commenting on an Iraqi government decision.
Based on preliminary results from the December elections, Chalabi received 8,645 votes in Baghdad, well below the threshold a top U.N. official suggested this week would be required to win a seat.
Moussawi said Friday that Chalabi could still end up in the parliament, depending on how officials interpret a technical detail of election rules relating to how remaining seats are allocated after each party meeting a specific threshold is awarded its seats.
"There is still confusion, even today at the election commission, about this, but we are hearing the party will have at least one seat," Moussawi said.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, mortar shells fell a few minutes apart late Friday afternoon -- one on a cafe and the other on the roof of a car -- in a crowded section of the city center. Sadoon Ali, 48, was playing backgammon in a nearby restaurant when he heard the explosion. "We were standing there wondering what happened when another explosion surprised us," he said.
A man who police said was drunk and angry because a friend had been wounded in the explosion began firing shots into a crowd, sending people scattering in all directions and wounding one man in the left leg.
Also in Baghdad, the government of Sudan said it would close its embassy to meet a demand issued by the insurgent group al Qaeda in Iraq, which claimed to have abducted six Sudanese citizens last week, the Associated Press reported. Five of the men were shown in a video released by the group in recent days. Insurgents have carried out a wave of abductions and attacks that they say is designed to compel diplomats to leave Iraq.
Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.