For years, everyone has known that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran were sitting atop vast pools of oil. They were the lucky countries that were going to get rich.

Now, international petroleum experts say Iraq has more than 100 billion barrels of proven and probable oil reserves - at least three times the amount publicly attributed to Bahdad by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Some of the smartest Middle East oil analysts are suggesting that Iraq's reserves may run as high as 130 billion barrels - a staggering total that approaches the 150-billion-barrel reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Iraq's huge untapped oil reserves bold enormous implications for the oil dependent West. Drive by its ambitious development plans, Iraq will inevitably move to increase oil production in the years ahead. And regardless of whom the oil is sold to, the increase in available world oil supplies will benefit the United States.

Why has it taken the world so long to realize that Iraq's oil reserves are considerably larger that those of Kuwait or Iraq (chart), and may even rival those of the Saudis?

The answer lies partly in the compulsive secretiveness of the government in Baghdad, which refuses to discuss the size of its oil reserves publicly or privately.

Vice Chairman Saddam Hussein came the closest to breaking the rule against talking about Iraq's reserves - an offense punishable by imprisonment - when he said: "One of the last two barrels produced in the world must come from Iraq."

But Baghdad also blames the major Western oil companies - which operated Iraq's petroleum fields until they were nationalized in 1972 - for the failure to discover the size of Iraq's reserves much earlier.

"The companies did nothing to evaluate Iraq's potential," declares Dr. Fadhil Chelabi, a former Iraqi official who played a key role in the nationalization.

Chelabi, who is now with the secretariat of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Counties in Vienna, suggests that the major oil companies saw little advantage in searching for additional oil in Iraq when finding it would only cut into their lucrative profits in Saudi Arabia.

"There always was too much oil available, so the majors wouldn't explore," concedes an American diplomat. "That was the source of the problem with Iraq."

Another factor that has added to the tendency to discount the importance of Iraq is the fact that Baghdad has opted for a relatively low level of petroleum production.

While Iran, with much smaller reserves, is pumping more than 5.5 million barrels of oil a day, Iraq is currently pumping only about 2.4 million.

The explanation lies in a conscious decision by Baghdad to convert only enough oil into petrodollars to finance each stage of Iraq's cautious development program.

"We are against the idea of accumulating a surplus (of petrodollars) because any surplus, is subject to collapse," says Oil Minister Tayeh al Karim.

Increasing Iraqi oil production would also add to the current world petroleum glut, Karim contends, and thus tend to further depress oil prices.

Iraq in recent years has publicly taken a hard line on the pricing issue, aligning itself at OPEC meetings with Algeria and Libya - the cartel's price hawks.

Karim, for example, called a 23 per cent price increase at the OPEC meeting in Caracas last December, even though world market conditions made a price freeze virtually inevitable.

But for all their 'raise-the-price' rhetoric, the Iraqis privately play a very independent - and some say very pragmatic - game.

Iraq, for instance, was the only Arab country that did not go along with the 1973 Arab oil embargo against the industrialized West.

Baghdad claims it declined to honor the embargo because the ban was not directed exclusively against the United States and Holland - Israel's staunchest supporters.Other analysts suggest, however, that Iraq simply took advantage of the opportunity to pick up a little badly needed cash at the expense of its competitors.

James Reddington, a senior analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris, says the Iraqis also regularly undercut the current OPEC price level that they fought so hard to raise.

"The Iraqis are willing to price shave more than anyone else in OPEC," says Reddington.

"It must have something to do with their capitalistic spirit," he adds with a smile.