Iraq failed to name an oil minister as its new government was sworn in on Tuesday, fuelling uncertainty in an industry already troubled by guerrilla sabotage attacks in crude pipelines.
Earlier an aide to Iraq’s Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had told Reuters that U.S.-educated oil engineer Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum was expected to be sworn in as the country’s permanent oil minister.
Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi was named acting oil minister last week in the new government until a permanent replacement was agreed upon.
“There was a last minute hitch. Ahmad Chalabi remains acting oil minister,” said Jawad al-Maliki, a senior official in Jaafari’s Dawa Party.
Earlier he said: “Dr. Bahr al-Uloum is the most qualified candidate among the United Iraqi Alliance.”
The alliance is the Shi’ite bloc that won half of the seats in parliament in general elections three months ago.
“It is not 100 percent certain, but the direction is that he will be sworn in with the rest of the cabinet this evening. He knows the sector well and has dealt with OPEC,” Maliki had said by telephone from Baghdad.
Maliki did not elaborate on the last minute hitch, but other politicians said a compromise may still have to be reached with al-Fadila, another Shi’ite party that was promised the oil ministry portfolio but failed to present a candidate satisfactory to Jaafari.
Officials in Jaafari’s Shi’ite alliance said Uloum remained backed by the prime minister as the strongest contender for the post because of his qualifications as a U.S. educated engineer who headed the oil ministry for nine months after the war.
Jaafari has delayed naming a permanent oil minister twice already as he tries to satisfy a range of religious and more secular groups within his Shi’ite bloc.
A number of U.S. oil experts expressed concern after Chalabi was named acting oil minister that he not suitable for the job because he has no experience in the oil sector and was convicted of bank fraud by a military court in Jordan in the 1990s.
Chalabi has denied the charges and filed a lawsuit in the United States against the Jordanian government accusing it of framing him.
The former banker still wields influence and has a good relationship with Bahr al-Uloum, the son of leading Shi’ites Muslim cleric Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum.
Chalabi also backed Bahr al-Uloum when he served as oil minister after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Uloum was replaced by veteran geologist Thamir al-Ghadhban when the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi formally took over from the occupation authority in June 2004.
Unlike Ghadbhan and long serving technocrats in the Iraqi oil industry, many in the oil ministry see Uloum as an outsider.
Iraq is seeking to raise oil exports that have remained stuck at around 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) for months as sabotage attacks and production problems persist.
The exports, which brought $17 billion of revenue last year, are Iraq’s sole independent source of hard currency needed for rebuilding after wars and crushing sanctions.