Nuclear scientist seen as Iraq's oil minister
BAGHDAD, May 14 : Nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shi'ite Islamist dissident once jailed by Saddam Hussein, seems increasingly likely to be Iraq's next oil minister, leading negotiators today said.
''We are now 80 per cent sure that this job will go to Shahristani,'' one senior negotiator told Reuters, saying that only a surprise development could now block his appointment.
Three senior officials from the United Alliance, the Shi'ite bloc to which both Shahristani and Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki belong, agreed Shahristani would probably get the job but he still faced objections from some parties within the Alliance coalition.
''He is our best candidate for it,'' said another senior Shi'ite source.
Shahristani's chances were enhanced after the Fadhila party, one of 18 parties within the Alliance, withdrew entirely from government talks. Fadhila objected to Shahristani's nomination and said the job should go to one of its members, possibly outgoing Oil Minister Hashem al-Hashemi, for example.
Maliki's Dawa party was backing Shahristani, an independent within the Alliance. Other major component parties in the bloc had some reservations but were likely to back him too, officials said.
Shahristani has also faced competition from technocrat Thamir Ghadhban, a secular Shi'ite with no link to major parties, who has 30 years of experience in Iraq's energy sector.
Shahristani's nomination has created conflicting feelings within the oil industry. Some expressed confidence that his firm personality will help control smuggling that is damaging state revenues. Others questioned his willingness to listen to advice.
As for Shahristani, he has told close aides in the past few days that his main focus, if he gets the job, would be to fight corruption inside the sector.
Iraq's oil sector, crippled by decades of war, sanctions and under-investment, has lurched from one crisis to another since the US invasion of 2003.
It is also losing out on millions of dollars to smugglers who are shipping oil and fuel to Iran and other Gulf states as some government officials turn a blind eye.
The losses are compounded by mismanagement and turf battles in the Oil Ministry, a prized portfolio for politicians who have been engaged in tough talks on the formation of a new government since a parliamentary election on December 15.
Sabotage bombing of northern oil pipelines to Turkey has left the country with the world's third largest oil reserves with few options.
And cracking down on the smugglers is a daunting task amid the constant instability of suicide bombings, shootings, assassinations and kidnappings.