By Joshua Partlow and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 26 -- Iraq's cabinet approved draft legislation Monday that would enable the government to manage the country's vast oil resources and distribute revenue throughout the country, a step toward meeting a U.S. demand that the country's parliament pass such a law.
But in a reminder of Iraq's continuing instability, Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the country's two vice presidents, narrowly avoided assassination Monday morning when a bomb exploded inside a crowded third-floor conference room at a government ministry in Baghdad's Mansour district.
Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq's most influential Shiite politicians, was walking toward the podium at an awards ceremony at the Public Works Ministry when explosives detonated beneath the seats, striking him with shrapnel but causing only minor wounds, according to Zuhair Hamadi, an adviser to the vice president.
The harrowing security breach, in which at least five people were killed and more than 15 wounded, police said, illustrated the perils of political life in Iraq even as U.S. and Iraqi forces attempt to pacify the capital. Abdul Mahdi's brother was killed in 2005, and last year a bomb exploded outside his house in Baghdad.
"I'm sure people knew he was coming to the ceremony maybe three or four days ahead of time, and they planned it," Hamadi said.
The draft oil law, approved by Iraq's cabinet after months of intense negotiations, must still be approved by parliament. Ministers agreed to a goal of enacting the legislation by May, a senior Iraqi official said on condition of anonymity.
"If this law is enacted, it is truly an important breakthrough to establishing the political economy of what we want to see: an Iraq that is democratic, federal and united," Barham Salih, one of Iraq's two deputy prime ministers, said in an interview. "These vital resources, and these revenues, are understandably among the most difficult and most contentious issues faced by Iraqis."
The draft law calls for oil revenue throughout the country to be deposited in a federal government account and redistributed to Iraq's 18 provinces, most likely on a per capita basis, said Salih, the chairman of the negotiating committee working on the legislation. A secondary piece of legislation will address in more detail the mechanisms of revenue distribution, he added.
The law would establish a Federal Council on Oil and Gas to oversee energy policy and determine procedures for negotiating contracts with oil companies and managing oil exploration and production. The law also would revamp the Iraqi National Oil Co. and give regulatory oversight to the Oil Ministry.
"All Iraqis, irrespective of their geographic location, will benefit from these revenues. There will be no segregation or sectarian division," said Thamir Ghadban, a former oil minister serving as a consultant to the negotiating committee.
The negotiators wrangled in part over how much autonomy regional authorities, especially the Kurdish territories of northern Iraq, would have to sign contracts with energy companies and manage oil fields in their areas. While the draft law would consolidate much decision-making authority in Baghdad, regional officials hailed the agreement and said they would still have certain independent powers over their resources.
"The Kurdistan region will voluntarily share some of its constitutional powers to manage petroleum exploration and development in Kurdistan with the federal government," said Ashti Hawrami, the Kurdish region's minister of natural resources, in a statement on the regional government's Web site.
In particular, the Kurdish regional government will allow a panel of experts to review the region's oil contracts and pool its revenue with the central government. "In return, Kurdistan will be guaranteed a share of pooled revenues proportionate to its population," the statement said. "The Kurdistan Regional Government will, of course, retain the power to sign contracts for petroleum exploration and development in the Kurdistan Region."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, issued a statement praising the cabinet for reaching an agreement. U.S. officials have pressured the Iraqi government to approve the law in the hope that an equitable mechanism for managing oil resources would remove a source of conflict. Most of Iraq's oil fields are in the predominantly Shiite south and the mainly Kurdish north, prompting fears among Sunni Arabs that they will be left out of revenue-sharing arrangements devised by a Shiite-led government.
Given that the cabinet represents all major parliamentary blocs, "prospects for the draft legislation becoming the law of the land are excellent," Khalilzad said. "There is still much work that needs to be done in the hydrocarbon sector. But a vital step was taken today."
Also on Monday, U.S. officials announced the seizure of what they described as a large cache of Iranian-made parts for powerful armor-piercing roadside bombs, known as explosively formed projectiles, that officials say have killed more than 170 members of U.S.-led coalition forces over the past two years. U.S. soldiers, following a tip from an Iraqi, found the weapons parts, along with rockets and mortars, on Saturday, hidden in two large freezers concealed by palm fronds.
"This was a great find for us," said Capt. Clayton Combs, the commander of the company that made the discovery in a village near Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. "This is a significant amount. It probably saved a lot of lives."
The roadside bombs are fashioned with plastic cylinders packed with explosives, and an attached copper plate turns into a smoldering projectile that penetrates armored vehicles. The cache included 150 of the plates in various sizes.
Earlier this month, U.S. military officials briefing reporters in Baghdad on condition of anonymity said without offering evidence that high-ranking Iranian government officials were involved in supplying the deadly explosives to Iraqi militants. But at a briefing Monday, officials said they had no evidence of who supplied the weapons. A military explosives expert, Maj. Marty Weber, said Iran is the only known country where these types of components are manufactured.
Military officials involved in the recent discovery said they were not sure to whom the weapon parts belonged or how they got to the village of al-Jedidah, where the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, has a strong presence. They said the fact that they found parts, rather than complete devices, suggests that some are being assembled in Iraq.
The U.S. military said a Marine was killed Monday in Anbar province in western Iraq.
Meanwhile, aides to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was hospitalized Sunday in Jordan, said he is in stable condition. His office said Monday that the president was "fully conscious and in high spirits." He will remain in Amman to undergo more tests. Talabani reportedly lost consciousness Sunday after what his staff described as a series of stressful days.
Special correspondent Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.