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Shahristani out of oil, in for Maliki deputy
2010-12-03 21:22:55

BAGHDAD – Hussain al-Shahristani will continue steering Iraq’s energy sector, but not in his current capacities as minister of oil and acting minister of electricity. Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will tap Shahristani, a fellow member of the State of Law coalition, for a newly created post as deputy prime minister for oil and electricity issues.

The move ensures that Maliki will keep a hand on the tiller of Iraq’s energy sector, even if he’s forced to award leadership of the Oil or Electricity ministry to other parties in his fractious governing coalition.

“We have agreed within the coalition that Mr. Shahristani will be the deputy prime minister for energy issues, which includes oil and electricity issues,” said Kamal al-Saidi, a confidante of Maliki and top official in his Dawa Party.

According to Saidi, Shahristani’s appointment has received the consensus blessing of the entire pan-Shiite bloc, including Maliki’s State of Law electoral coalition, which holds 89 seats in the new parliament, and the coalition representing Moqtada Sadr’s followers and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which has 70 seats.

Maliki’s great political challenge is to appease not only his Shiite bloc, but also the other political factions whose support he needs to complete the formation of a government. Needing at least 163 seats for a majority, Maliki has also struck deals with the Kurdistan Alliance and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc. All of them expect sizable representation in Maliki’s cabinet.

Three posts are currently being contested and will likely be divided among the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish blocs: the ministries of Oil, Finance and Foreign Affairs. The latter has little value in domestic power struggles.

The finance minister cuts the checks, ensuring that other ministries and provinces get their budget allocations. More importantly to the Kurds, the Finance Ministry is the state institution that would potentially compensate the oil companies hired by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to develop its oil sector. Until now, Baghdad has claimed sole authority over the oil sector, and has refused to pay any contracts that haven’t been approved by the Oil Ministry.

The oil minister is the other highly sought position. To date, the Oil Ministry has set the country’s oil policy, under which foreign oil companies have won 15 oil and gas contracts since late 2008.

That portfolio could change. Key oil-related legislation, which was stalled by the KRG-Baghdad feud, would turn the Oil Ministry into a regulator instead of operator and policymaker. By shifting Shahristani out of the ministry, Maliki might be anticipating the passage of such legislation, moving his political ally into a position that will acquire much of the Oil Ministry’s current power.

This isn’t to say that Maliki is conceding the oil portfolio, but rather hedging his political bets.

“There is still a will within the alliance to keep the Oil Ministry,” Saidi said. “There are some names but we haven’t nominated any specific person.”

One person likely to be ruffled by Shahristani’s promotion is Thamir Ghadhban, a former oil minister who has effectively functioned as a shadow prime minister under Maliki. As the head of an economic, energy, and strategic policy council, working on behalf of and reporting to the prime minister, Ghadhban has been performing a job that appears to be supplanted by Shahristani’s new post. A well respected technocrat, Ghadhban has been rumored to want to run a newly re-established national oil company, which would come into existence if the stalled oil law is passed.

Compromise by addition

The creation of a new post for Shahristani reinforces a larger political trend: in response to the clamoring of multiple constituencies, Maliki’s solution has been to invent new high-level posts.

There will be at least three deputy prime minister roles, up from the current two, though the portfolios aren’t clear. There has also been talk about expanding the number of ministries. And even the two vice presidencies, which were doled out to non-Kurdish parties but are not constitutional, might be kept.

In perhaps the most notable instance of compromise by addition, in order to get agreement on forming an inclusive government, the coalitions agreed in November that Allawi would head a new strategic policy council. As a non-constitutional body, the policy council requires an act of Parliament to gain legal authority – and no matter how much power it gets, there are drawbacks for Iraq.

If the council doesn’t get any teeth, Allawi will likely pass on the position, thereby leaving Iraq’s largest electoral bloc feeling disenfranchised. If the council does get power, Allawi will become another counterweight to Maliki, along with the Council of Ministers and the Parliament – a dynamic which would likely further slow the country’s governance.

The leadership of the Interior and Defense ministries, which control the police and the army, have thus far been committed to “independents” because of the anxiety over allowing further politicization of the security apparatus.

“(Maliki) informed the political blocks that the deadline for the official nomination for all the ministers and other government positions should not pass the date of Dec. 15,” Saidi said. Maliki expects to finalize the proposed cabinet before a 30-day government-formation deadline expires, near the end of December.