tampabay.com

Iraqi parties far from accord

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 21, 2007


BAGHDAD - In recent months, U.S. officials have been stepping up pressure on Iraq's religiously and ethnically based parties to reach agreements on a range of political and economic initiatives to encourage national reconciliation and bring an end to the fighting.

Progress in meeting those benchmarks is considered crucial to continued U.S. support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government at a time when Democrats in Congress are pressing for an end to the war. Those benchmarks include enactment of a new law to manage the country's vast oil wealth and distribute revenues among the various groups.

But prospects for quick approval received a setback Sunday when the country's Sunni vice president told reporters in Jordan that the proposed legislation gives too many concessions to foreign oil companies.

"We disagree with the production sharing agreement, " Tariq al-Hashemi told reporters at an international conference hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. "We want foreign oil companies, and we have to lure them into Iraq to learn from their expertise and acquire their technology, but we shouldn't give them big privileges."

The bill also faces opposition from the Kurds, who have demanded greater control of oil fields in Kurdish areas. Kurdish parties control 58 of the 275 parliament seats.

Iraq's Cabinet signed off on the oil bill in February and sent it to parliament, a move that the Bush administration hailed as a major sign of political progress. But parliament has yet to consider it.

Hashemi is among three leaders of a Sunni bloc that controls 44 seats. Together, the Kurds and the Sunnis have enough legislative muscle to delay passage of the measure, which is likely to draw opposition from some Shiite lawmakers, too.

In another political setback, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and was headed to Iran for treatment, party officials said Sunday. Hakim's absence is likely to create disarray in his Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq.

News of his diagnosis came hours after another top Iraqi leader, President Jalal Talabani, flew to the United States for a medical checkup. The Kurdish leader, 73, has played an important role in trying to bridge the gap between Sunni Arabs and Shiites.