Wednesday, July 4, 2007

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi Cabinet signed off yesterday on a revised bill to regulate the country’s oil industry and sent it to parliament — a major step in reaching a long-delayed benchmark sought by the United States to promote reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Within hours of the announcement, however, the legislation hit a snag: The Kurds said they had neither seen nor approved the final text and may oppose it.

American officials are hoping that passage of the oil bill and companion legislation to distribute oil revenues will help rally Sunni support for the government and reduce backing for the insurgents.

In the latest violence, a car bomb exploded late yesterday at an outdoor market in the Shaab area of northeastern Baghdad, killing 18 persons and wounding 35, police said.

The market is in a Shi’ite neighborhood frequently targeted by Sunni bombers.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters that his Cabinet had unanimously approved the oil draft and that parliament would begin discussing it the next day. He called the bill “the most important law in Iraq.”

The Cabinet endorsed one version of the legislation in February, but Kurds protested that the measure was unconstitutional because it gave too much power to a yet-to-be-established national oil company in managing the country’s oil fields.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh did not release the bill’s final version.

In a statement posted on its Web site, the Kurdistan Regional Government said it would reject the latest text if it made “material and substantive changes” to the outline decided after weeks of protracted negotiations.

“We have not seen the final text of the law that the Iraqi Cabinet says it will put to parliament,” the statement said. “We hope that the Cabinet is not approving a text with which the [Kurdish administration] disagrees, because this would violate the constitutional rights of the Kurdistan region.”

The Kurds control 53 of the 275 seats in parliament, not enough to defeat the measure on its own but enough to stall approval.

Only 24 of the Cabinet’s 37 members were present for the vote because of boycotts by ministers from the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front and the Shi’ite bloc loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both groups have separate political disputes with Mr. al-Maliki.

The bill is part of a package of legislation that would establish rules for exploiting Iraq’s vast oil wealth and provide a formula for distributing revenues among the 18 provinces. Iraq’s proven oil reserves have been estimated at 115 billion barrels, the second largest after Saudi Arabia in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The issue of oil distribution is a top concern of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, which is centered in regions of the country with little proven reserves.

Most of Iraq’s known reserves lie in the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south. Sunnis fear the Shi’ites and Kurds — who now dominate the government — would monopolize profits from the industry.

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