- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

VIENNA, Austria (AP) — The leader of Venezuela’s delegation to OPEC said yesterday it was unacceptable for Iraq to attend this week’s OPEC output-policy talks in anything but an informal way.

OPEC’s president, however, said there was historical precedent for allowing Iraq at the meeting.

Iraq is attending a session of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April, with Oil Minister Ibrahim Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum representing the country’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Iraq also hasn’t participated in OPEC quota agreements since the United Nations imposed sanctions in 1990 to punish Baghdad for invading Kuwait.

The invitation to attend was a diplomatic victory for the council, which is trying to gain international recognition despite its lack of sovereignty in Iraq.

Speaking as he arrived in Vienna, Venezuela’s energy minister, Rafael Ramirez, said Iraq should not be in a position to influence decisions at the meeting because Iraq’s government is not recognized by the United Nations.

Informal talks, he said, were acceptable, but “we won’t accept under any circumstances” official Iraqi attendance.

“Our position is clear. Venezuela hopes to have Iraq included within OPEC, but the internal situation of Iraq should be resolved, and there should be recognition by the U.N.,” Mr. Ramirez said.

“We think it is not convenient to have Iraq included,” he said. “It is healthy to wait until there is U.N. recognition.”

Asked whether his delegation would leave the meeting if Iraq is allowed to attend in an official capacity, he said: “We will have to discuss that. But I think there will be a consensus, as usual.”

OPEC President Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, however, said there was precedent for Iraq’s attendance, noting that Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait had at one time been OPEC members without having internationally recognized governments.

“We should be pragmatic, not put Iraq outside [the group]. … It’s in the interests of all of us to be united. I hope not to see the threat of a walkout” by Venezuela, Mr. al-Attiyah said.

Twelve years of sanctions have left Iraq’s oil facilities in lamentable shape, but sabotage and looting have distracted Iraqi oil engineers and their U.S. backers from the essential job of repairing and replacing run-down equipment.

Iraq has the world’s second-largest proven crude reserves, but is only producing about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day — 1 million barrels fewer than on the eve of the war. It now exports just 900,000 barrels a day, according to OPEC.

Paul Horsnell, head of energy research at Barclays Capital in London, doesn’t foresee Iraq producing at prewar levels on a sustainable basis until some time in 2005.

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