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US moves fast to build oil delegation

Baghdad, April 20 (Reuters): A former Iraqi general who says he is deputy governor of post-war Baghdad announced today he would head a delegation to an Opec meeting in Vienna this week.

An Opec source said the delegation, led by Jawdat al-Obeidi and including senior oil officials from Saddam Hussein’s deposed government, was due to arrive in Vienna on April 23, a day before the meeting starts.

Oil industry insiders said they were surprised such a senior delegation had been assembled so quickly — while chaos reigns in most areas of Iraqi life — and the move seemed to reflect US efforts to speed reconstruction of the Iraqi oil industry.

The choice of representatives had presented Washington with an awkward diplomatic problem. It has de facto control of the country after toppling Saddam but does not want to appear to dictate Iraqi policy, especially on oil.

US officials had said it was possible nobody would represent Iraq at the meeting of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. One Opec source said last week the cartel had invited Saddam’s oil minister, who is on a US wanted list.

But Obeidi, who spent several years in exile in the US as an opposition figure to Saddam’s regime, said he was nominated to go to Vienna by Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, who has declared himself Baghdad governor. “I will head a delegation to the Opec meeting,” he said.

Zubaidi, an official in Ahmad Chalabi’s long-exiled Iraqi National Congress party, said on Thursday he had been elected by an assembly of civic leaders to head an interim council to run Baghdad in the wake of the collapse of Saddam's rule.

However, neither he nor US officials have explained how or when the elections took place and who organised them.

Obeidi said he would be accompanied to Vienna by four Iraqi oil experts — Thamir Abbas Ghadhban, director general of planning in the oil ministry, Mazin Juma’h, Rafid Abdul Halim Jasim and Shamakhi Faraj.

Juma’h had been Saddam’s senior deputy minister of oil for less than a year. Jasim was executive director of Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organisation, and Faraj was the country’s national representative to Opec’s Economic Commission Board under Saddam.

Some former oil officials said Ghadhban had been liaising between Zubaidi and the oil ministry. Ghadhban said last week that Iraq’s oil sector could be up and running in weeks but that he and other officials were not yet thinking about exports.

Before the war, Iraq was producing 2.5 million barrels of oil per day and exporting an average 2 million barrels daily.

Iraqi oil officials started preparing today to resume production after a suspension of nearly one month. Iraq has the world’s second-largest oil reserve after Saudi Arabia.

“Our first priority is to operate fuel stations in Baghdad and to provide fuel to Iraqi power stations in order to resume electricity,” said one official, who asked not to be named.

The US military said on Wednesday it could get Iraqi oilfields pumping at 1.6 million barrels daily in four to eight weeks, but a resumption of exports depended on the creation of a political authority in the war-torn country.

The same day, an Opec source said the cartel had invited Saddam’s oil minister, who features on Washington’s list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis, to attend the Vienna meeting.

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