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For Iraq's oil wealth, tangled pipes

As US works to restore Iraqi oil production and sales, Russia, France and even the UN hold critical leverage.

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As the dust settles on the fighting in Iraq, a formidable battle is shaping up for control of the country's vast mineral wealth, pitting the coalition powers on one side against France and Russia on the other, with the Iraqis themselves caught in the middle.

At stake is Iraq's immense oil potential. Its proven reserves are second only in size to Saudi Arabia's, and pipelines, moreover, run north through Turkey as well as south through the Gulf - a crucial point of diversification.

Conventional prewar wisdom predicted that the victorious US forces would quickly turn Iraq into one super-giant oil well that could feed its voracious energy-importing needs.

But the reality is proving somewhat more complex, and it is becoming clear that the US administration will have to involve the international community, not to mention the Iraqis themselves, in rehabilitating Iraqi oil.

"The US administration doesn't have the legitimacy to begin exporting oil," says Rusa Hubari, a Middle East expert with the Energy Intelligence Group. "No one will buy oil at the moment because they ask: Under what law is it functioning?

"If you are loading oil at [the Turkish port of] Ceyhan and your shipment gets lost, who do you sue and under what law?" she asks. "It will have to go through the UN. There will have to be a debate."

The first salvos of oil battle thundered out last week when President Bush called for UN sanctions against Iraq to be dropped. The request sounds innocuous enough, but it masks an urgent US desire for a free hand to start pumping Iraqi crude once again to raise funds for rebuilding the country.

Russia immediately balked at the idea. The concern in Moscow and Paris - both with considerable pre-war oil interests in Iraq - is that they will be shut out altogether if the United States revives the Iraqi oil industry on its own, arrogating impregnable influence for itself in the process. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister also objected to the move, saying sanctions should end only when a legitimate Iraqi government is in place.

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