Iraqi lawmakers push to grill oil minister

BAGHDAD, June 3 Wed Jun 3, 2009 5:19pm IST

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BAGHDAD, June 3 (Reuters) - More than 100 Iraqi lawmakers have signed a request to summon the oil minister for a parliamentary grilling about sluggish oil exports and corruption allegations in the ministry, deputies said on Wednesday.

The request to question Hussain al-Shahristani was signed by 117 deputies and handed in this week to the office of parliamentary speaker Ayad al-Samarai, parliamentary oil and gas committee secretary Jabir Khalifa Jabir said.

It is unclear when Shahristani is to appear although the speaker's office said a date could be set next week. The minister has welcomed what he says would be an opportunity to explain his ministry's achievements.

"Recently Iraqi oil production and exports have seen declines despite Iraq's huge reserves," Jabir said.

"Not one refinery has been built in recent years. With the drop in oil prices, Iraq was supposed to increase production. But it did not happen and this is a failure of the oil ministry's policies."

Iraq sits on the world's third largest oil reserves, but they are underexploited after decades of war, sanctions and underinvestment. Production of 2.3-2.4 million barrels per day is lower than it was before the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The Iraqi parliament has become far more assertive since Samarai, a Sunni politician viewed as a foe of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, was picked as speaker in April.

Last month it summoned the trade minister, an ally of Maliki's, for questioning over nepotism and corruption. The minister, Abdul Falah al-Sudany, resigned soon afterwards and was arrested last Saturday as he tried to fly to Dubai.

Jabir, a member of the Fadhila party, a Shi'ite group that is not part of Maliki's Shi'ite alliance, said parliamentarians also wanted to quiz Shahristani about alleged corruption in the ministry and about oil contracts Jabir said were illegal.

He said only deputies from the prime minister's Dawa party and from Shahristani's independent bloc had declined to join the call to summon him for questioning.

Shahristani earlier this week said he would be happy to go before parliament.

"I am proud of what the ministry of oil has achieved during this period," he told U.S.-funded al-Hurra television.

"Even ordinary Iraqi citizens have noticed the change in their lives compared to when they used to spend long hours and even whole nights trying to obtain gasoline."

Iraq became self-sufficient in refined gasoline this year. It used to spend $5 billion a year importing gasoline.

A Dawa deputy said the push to summon the minister had nothing to do with his record.

"These accusations are 100 percent politically motivated," said the lawmaker, Hassan al-Sneid. (Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by William Hardy)

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