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Cheney in Iraq to Lubricate Oil Theft

Cheney on Unannounced Visit to Iraq
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr., New York Times

MOSCOW — Pushing Iraqi political leaders toward opening up the country’s vast oil fields for international companies is on the agenda of Vice President Dick Cheney during his trip to Baghdad, a senior Bush administration official said.

Mr. Cheney, who arrived in the Iraqi capital with his wife and daughter on an unannounced trip Monday morning, will meet with top officials including the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

According to a pool report of comments made by a senior administration official who was flying with Mr. Cheney, the vice president plans, among other things, to push Iraqi officials to pass petroleum legislation that would help bring international oil companies to Iraq.

The official described it as being about Iraqi leaders “figuring out how they really begin to exploit” the country’s resources, according to the pool report.

Perhaps the most contentious major legislation pending in Iraq covers how to divvy up the country’s vast petroleum wealth and develop its oil fields. But some Iraqi leaders fear that the proposals may allow American and western firms too much access to contracts for developing and exploiting Iraqi oil reserves.

In particular, politicians loyal to Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose political alliance could take control of a number of southern Shiite provinces in the next round of provincial elections, are wary of what will happen to the country’s oil wealth.

“Exploiting and controlling the Iraqi oil fields have been part of the American scheme for more than four years,” said Hassan al-Rubaie, a member of parliament and senior member of Mr. Sadr’s political alliance. “Our presence in the parliament and among the Iraqi people will work with other national forces to stop this scheme.”

Administration officials have characterized their efforts on behalf of international oil companies as leveling the playing field to make sure there is a free and competitive market.

On board Mr. Cheney’s aircraft, the senior administration official said the vice president would thank Iraqi leaders “for the hard work they’ve done” and that he would urge them to proceed with “the rest of the hard work necessary to consolidate Iraq’s democracy.” The official said that “several landmark pieces of legislation” have passed since the vice president was last here, in May.

Political progress has been limited. There has been new legislation recently approved, including the 2008 budget and a bill that grants amnesty to thousands of Sunnis and others in Iraqi jails.

But other key proposals have stalled, or made questionable progress. A bill intended to allow some former Baath Party members back into the government may actually end up causing as many problems as it fixes, as some American officials worry it will force Sunnis out of some key security and ministry positions.

Another crucial piece of legislation that called for provincial elections by October was vetoed, the result of a deep split between the country’s two most powerful Shiite political parties. Without provincial elections, Sunni Arabs in many areas of the north will continue to be dominated by Kurd and Shiite provincial politicians despite the Sunnis’ greater numbers.

Mr. Cheney will meet Monday with top American leaders, including Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American military commander.

He will also have lunch with the country’s vice presidents — Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite, and Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni. He will also meet with Mahmoud Mashhadani, a Sunni who is the speaker of the parliament, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the powerful Shiite party that forced the veto of the provincial powers legislation.

The senior administration official said that the trip was an opportunity for the vice president to observe “how much things in Baghdad have changed” and that “now he can see first hand what progress has been made.”

Violence has dropped sharply in the past six months, after the troop escalation reached full strength. But some American officials in Iraq worry about the permanence of those gains. Some of the decline in violence, for example, is attributable to Mr. Sadr’s decision to order his militia followers to stop fighting almost seven months ago, a move that has allowed him to winnow the ranks of his militia of those he feels are disloyal to him.

And thousands of former Sunni insurgents who used to carry out attacks on American and Iraqi forces are now being paid by the American military to serve in neighborhood militias. It’s not clear how many of the 91,000 men who are in the new militia forces are former insurgents, but American officers worry about what will happen if Iraqi leaders disband the militias without incorporating the militiamen into the government.

The senior administration official said Mr. Cheney’s discussions with Iraqi leaders will be a mix of security and legislative issues, and that he will also discuss the relationship between the United States and Iraq over the long term. “We’ve got to be talking to each other about exactly what that relationship is going to look like,” the official said.

Karim Hilmi contributed reporting from Baghdad.



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