Biden Presses Iraq on Election Law, Oil-Bid Incentives

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

BAGHDAD, Sept. 16 -- Vice President Biden pressed Iraqi leaders Wednesday to approve as quickly as possible legislation that establishes rules for the planned January general election and to make the next round of bids to develop Iraqi oil concessions more attractive to foreign investors.

In a series of meetings in the Green Zone, Biden listened to the concerns of Iraqi leaders, now in the heat of an election season that Obama administration officials acknowledge will delay until after the vote any progress on such pressing issues as passing a law on the equitable distribution of national oil revenue among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

A senior administration official said Biden also made his interests known on a variety of issues, such as the need for the Iraqi parliament to adopt laws to better protect foreign investment and leaving unchanged the terms of the timetable for the withdrawal of the 130,000 U.S. troops now in the country.

This is Biden's second visit to Iraq in two months, and it comes as the Obama administration is trying to manage a growing Iraqi impatience with the U.S. military presence here. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Biden met with Wednesday evening, has expressed support for a proposed referendum that would hasten by a year the 2011 withdrawal deadline for all U.S. forces in Iraq.

U.S. military and diplomatic officials fear that a rapid departure could undermine the security gains realized over the past year, and in his meetings Biden asked Iraqi officials whether they thought the referendum would proceed. But Biden is reluctant to be seen as meddling in a domestic Iraqi issue, and a senior administration official said the vice president operated largely in "listening mode."

Speaking next to Biden at his official residence, Maliki said U.S. forces had complied with the terms of the agreement outlining the schedule for the troop withdrawal and the training of Iraqi forces with "high credibility."

Biden reiterated the terms of the withdrawal timeline. The senior administration official said the two men's statements mean "that we have a mutual interest in moving forward" under the conditions set out in the agreement.

Biden also appealed to Iraqi leaders to offer more financial incentives for foreign investors to bid on Iraqi oil concessions; only one bid of the eight put out this year was accepted. The administration official estimated that one additional deal would translate into $50 billion to $60 billion in foreign investment in Iraq, generate $600 million in annual revenue and create tens of thousands of jobs in the country.

The official said Biden would deliver the same message to Kurdish leaders in meetings scheduled for Thursday. Kurds' interest in ensuring what they see as a fair share of proceeds from the rich oil fields of Iraq's north has presented an obstacle to a revenue-sharing agreement. Reaching a deal is crucial to Iraq's oil-dependent economy, but the goal has been politically elusive for years.

"In an election season in any country, it's difficult to make definitive progress on any issue, and these are difficult issues," the official said, adding that Biden's hope is for the next Iraqi government to be "in good position" to move on the oil legislation and other matters soon after the election.

In all his meetings, Biden asked Iraqi officials to assess their progress on an election law, concerned that without one in place soon the January vote will not be able to proceed. The official said he particularly pressed Ayad al-Samarraie, speaker of the Iraqi parliament, because the law is a legislative matter.

Biden and Maliki expressed hope that the Iraq Business and Investment Conference scheduled to be held in Washington next month would encourage private U.S. investment in Iraq. But the administration source said Biden told Iraqi leaders that regulatory and other financial protections need to be enacted to make foreign investors more comfortable doing business here.

Some of the proposed protections are before parliament, the official said, and their passage would allow, among other things, for the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to extend loan guarantees to companies wishing to do business in Iraq.

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