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Iraq oil bill comes under political fire

Times Staff Writer

Political infighting blocked lawmakers from opening debate Wednesday on legislation to oversee the oil industry as Iraqi and U.S. leaders used the Fourth of July holiday to call for reconciliation among Iraq’s feuding factions.

An influential group of Sunni Muslim clerics, the Assn. of Muslim Scholars, joined the fray surrounding the oil bill Wednesday by issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, forbidding legislators to vote for it.

“Whoever does so will be exposed to God’s wrath and will have committed the crime of collaboration with the enemy,” said a statement from the group, a fierce opponent of the U.S. occupation.

The developments were an ominous sign for U.S. and Iraqi leaders, who have counted on passage of the legislation to show evidence of political progress before parliament starts a monthlong break July 31. U.S. officials must give Congress a progress report on Iraq in September, leaving little time for the measure to win approval.

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Also Wednesday, two U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq. One died in Nineveh province in the northwest when a helicopter was shot down. A second soldier was injured in the incident. In southern Baghdad another soldier was killed, the military announced, bringing to at least 3,588 the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq theater since the American-led invasion of March 2003.

At an Independence Day celebration, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki urged lawmakers to trade the “language of confrontation” for the “language of cooperation,” a message to legislators whose squabbling and boycotts of parliament have hobbled the government. Vowing that Iraqis will not “slack off,” Maliki said they were “ready to take the steps that will take us to a brighter future.”

Maliki joined Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus in addressing hundreds of guests who crowded into a former palace of ex-leader Saddam Hussein inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

Petraeus and Crocker harked back to the early days of America after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and said time showed that there was nothing quick or simple about establishing a democracy in any country.

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“It’s not easy to stand united. We learned that lesson during our own nation’s history, and we are seeing that in Iraq today,” Petraeus said.

Crocker echoed the sentiment but also hinted at the disappointing pace of progress so far in Iraq. He recalled his last July 4 here in 2003, after the fall of Hussein, and described the days leading up to it as “those exuberant months after liberation, when all things seemed possible.”

President Bush has sent an additional 28,500 U.S. troops to Iraq as part of his plan to stabilize the capital and give Maliki a better environment in which to bring about reform. So far, though, the parliament has proved incapable of overcoming its sectarian rivalries, and none of the legislation considered essential to national reconciliation has been passed into law.

The oil legislation is considered the most important, because of the potential wealth to be derived from the oil industry. The legislation comprises two bills, one of which is a framework to oversee management of the industry. The other, known as the revenue-sharing law, would lay out the mechanisms for distributing oil profits.

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The framework was passed by the Cabinet on Tuesday, but various political blocs immediately began objecting to it. Kurdish lawmakers, who just days before had expressed support for the measure, said they had not seen the draft passed Tuesday and could not guarantee their support for it. Sunni Arab legislators have said the bill would open the industry to foreign investors, mainly American oil companies, and deprive Iraqis of their due wealth.

The 44-member main Sunni Arab bloc is boycotting parliament over an unrelated issue. That would make it difficult to give legitimacy to the oil bill even if it were passed.

Without their presence, Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said, it was not possible to debate the measure.

The revenue-sharing bill has not yet been passed by the Cabinet.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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