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OPEC may invite Iraq to oil meeting

/ Source: The Associated Press

OPEC might invite Iraq’s newly installed oil minister to next week’s meeting of the cartel even without prior U.N. recognition of the new interim government in Baghdad, the cartel’s president said Monday.

SUCH AN INVITATION would mark a milestone in Iraq’s rehabilitation as an oil producer. Iraq hasn’t attended meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries since the U.S.-led invasion this spring, and it hasn’t participated in the group’s output agreements since the Gulf War of 1991.

It also would signify a modest warming in the often chilly relations between OPEC, which pumps a third of the world’s oil, and the United States, the world’s biggest crude importer.

OPEC President Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah said he thought the group should invite Iraq to attend the group’s Sept. 24 oil ministers’ meeting in Vienna. His comments in Doha, Qatar, appeared to soften OPEC’s long-standing position that an invitation would only come after the United Nations recognized the new Iraqi government.

OPEC no longer felt obliged to wait for a U.N. imprimatur, said an OPEC official speaking on condition of anonymity at the group’s Vienna headquarters.

“I think the organization is flexible. I’m not very sure it’s a strict condition,” the official said. He added that OPEC could send an invitation to Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum as early as Tuesday.

“Washington should be pleased that Iraq’s transitory government is being recognized by OPEC,” said Peter Gignoux, managing director of the petroleum desk at Salomon Smith Barney.

Last week the Arab League accorded Iraq’s U.S.-backed leadership a measure of recognition when it allowed Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to fill Iraq’s seat at that Cairo-based organization. Iraq’s reintegration into OPEC would be a much bigger step, given the importance of oil exports to Iraq’s economy and the success of its interim government.

Al-Attiyah said he was planning to contact al-Uloum, Iraq’s oil minister, and that he would soon visit Iraq. He gave no date for the planned visit.

“We were about to send an invitation to Iraq, but we choose to give Iraq time to arrange its internal affairs,” said al-Attiyah, who also is Qatar’s oil minister.

The five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council met Saturday in Geneva to try to narrow their differences on a new Iraq resolution. They plan to resume their talks this week in New York before world leaders gather for the U.N. General Assembly.

Although OPEC was founded in Baghdad in 1960, questions persist about how committed Iraq will be to remaining a member of the group. Some U.S. conservatives want Iraq to drop out of OPEC so that it can be free to pump as much oil as it wants — at least once the Iraqis can restore security at their damaged and underfunded oil facilities and focus fully on boosting exports.

However, Iraqi officials have been cautious and expressed no urgency to forge an independent path like that of non-OPEC members Russia and Mexico.

Iraq’s postwar oil production has lagged far behind earlier expectations, due largely to rampant looting of oil facilities and attacks on pipelines. Iraqi officials last week estimated the country’s output at around 1.6 million barrels a day, well below the 2.1 million barrels it was pumping before the U.S-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

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