Iraq Oil Deal Gets Everybody's Attention

By Michael A. Fletcher
Monday, September 24, 2007

The oil deal signed between Hunt Oil and the government in Iraq's Kurdish region earlier this month has raised eyebrows, in no small part because it appears to undercut President Bush's hope that Iraq could draft national legislation to share revenue from the country's vast oil reserves. Making the deal more curious is that it was crafted by one of the administration's staunchest supporters, Ray Hunt.

Hunt, chief executive of the Dallas-based company, has been a major fundraiser and contributor to Bush's presidential campaigns. He also serves on the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, putting him close to the latest information developed by the nation's intelligence agencies.

If Hunt is signing regional oil deals in Iraq, critics ask, what does he know about the prospects for a long-stalled national oil law that others don't?

Since the deal was made public, it has drawn the ire of the Iraqi national government, which has called the agreement illegal.

"Any oil deal has no standing as far as the government of Iraq is concerned," Iraq's oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, told reporters earlier this month. "All these contracts have to be approved by the federal authority before they are legal. This [contract] was not presented for approval. It has no standing."

It also has caught the eye of maverick Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a presidential candidate. He has called for a congressional investigation to probe the Bush administration's role in the deal as well as the implications for a national oil law in Iraq.

"As I have said for five years, this war is about oil. The Bush administration desires private control of Iraqi oil, but we have no right to force Iraq to give up their oil," Kucinich said. "We have no right to set preconditions for Iraq which lead Iraq to giving up control of their oil. The constitution of Iraq designates that the oil of Iraq is the property of all Iraqi people."

The deal signed by Hunt is a production-sharing contract for petroleum exploration in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. It is one of several the Kurds have signed with foreign oil companies in recent years and the first since they enacted a regional oil law last month. Kurdish officials have said that the deal would benefit all Iraqis through a revenue-sharing agreement.

Whatever people suspect, Bush says he did not know about the deal before it happened. But, he acknowledged, he has some concerns.

"Our embassy also expressed concern about it," Bush said. "I knew nothing about the deal. I need to know exactly how it happened. To the extent that it does undermine the ability for the government to come up with an oil-revenue-sharing plan that unifies the country, obviously I'm -- if it undermines that, I'm concerned."

Still Around

The Nelson Mandela Foundation wants the world to know that its 89-year-old namesake is very much alive. It seems that a line Bush used at his news conference last week left that fact in doubt -- at least for some people.

"I thought an interesting comment was made -- somebody said to me, I heard somebody say, 'Now, where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas," Bush said last week. "He was a brutal tyrant that divided people up and split families. And people are recovering from this. So there's the psychological recovery that is taking place."

The president's point, of course, was that leaders capable of fostering reconciliation in Iraq, as Mandela has in South Africa, were systematically killed by Hussein. But given Bush's well-earned reputation for struggling with the language, some people were not sure what he meant.

After Bush's comments circled the globe, the Mandela Foundation felt compelled to set the record straight. "All we can do is reassure people, especially South Africans, that President Mandela is alive," Achmat Dangor, the foundation's chief executive officer, told Reuters on Friday.

Via Canada, the New Face of George Bush

The latest Macleans, the Canadian newsweekly that claims 2.9 million readers, features a striking image that is not too popular at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It's President Bush's face, but the rest of it is Saddam Hussein, including the mustache, hat and uniform. The image accompanies a story headlined "How George Bush Became the New Saddam," which chronicles how U.S. troops have partnered with some of Hussein's former "henchmen" in an effort to achieve order in parts of Iraq.

The provocative magazine cover made news in Canada, where it fired up bloggers and prompted stories from most major news outlets. "Macleans is a fairly conservative magazine. For the magazine to run that kind of cover surprised people," said Don Newman, senior parliamentary editor for CBC, the Canadian television network.

Both Bush and the war in Iraq are extremely unpopular in Canada, even if most Canadians stop short of equating Bush with Hussein, Newman said.

For Macleans editors, the decision to run the cover image was an easy one. "I don't think anybody quite anticipated the reaction would be this extreme," said Suneel Khanna, the magazine's director of communications. There's no word on how the cover affected sales, Khanna said, lamenting that it takes months to get information about newsstand activity.

Asked to comment on the image, the White House demurred. "That doesn't deserve a reaction," spokesman Tony Fratto said.

Decision Time

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations last week for a talk focused on Iraq. It mostly featured Hadley fielding questions from members of the audience as well as from moderator Thomas R. Pickering, who was the No. 3 official in President Bill Clinton's State Department.

Near the end, Pickering asked: "If you could do it all over again, would you really go into Iraq?"

Hadley did not miss a beat: "The reasons to go into Iraq really were the same. This was a tyrant who had acquired and used weapons of mass destruction, who had invaded his neighbors, who had oppressed his people, who'd defied the international community. . . . I think the answer is, the president would have done it all over again."

Pickering replied: "Your loyalty is admirable, Stephen. I commend you."

Setting the Stage

President Bush named Adam Belmar, a former ABC News senior producer, to be the White House's deputy director of communications for production, the person responsible for backdrops and other visual tools used at presidential events.

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