Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians and a powerful Shiite party said Wednesday they hadn’t agreed to a draft bill to regulate Iraq’s oil industry, raising the possibility of new delays in a major piece of benchmark legislation sought for months by the U.S.
It appeared unlikely parliament would begin debate on the measure Wednesday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had announced it would. A day earlier, al-Maliki said his Cabinet had approved the draft bill and was sending it to the legislature.
U.S. officials are hoping passage of the oil bill and companion legislation to distribute oil revenues will help rally Sunni support for the government and reduce backing for the insurgents. But deep differences between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in al-Maliki’s coalition have frustrated attempts to get a draft to parliament, and despite al-Maliki’s optimism they appeared still unresolved.
Only 24 of the Cabinet’s 37 members were present for the vote because of boycotts by ministers from the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front and the Shiite bloc local to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both groups have separate political disputes with al-Maliki.
An Accordance Front leader warned Wednesday that no draft should be considered until the Sunnis sign on.
"Any draft law that is approved in the absence of the Iraqi Accordance Front only represents the groups that approved it," Khalaf al-Ilyan told al-Sharqiya television. "If there are some who want to cancel the voices of half of the Iraqi people then they take the responsibility."
The head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nassar al-Rubaie, said: "We reject this copy of the oil and gas draft law because it left nothing of Iraq’s unity."
The Kurds said they had neither seen nor approved the final text and would oppose it if it made "material and substantive changes" to an outline agreed upon during weeks of negotiations.
"We hope that the Cabinet is not approving a text with which the (Kurdish administration) disagrees because this would violate the constitutional rights of the Kurdistan region," the Kurdistan Regional Government said in a statement.
Al-Rubaie and Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said parliament was unlikely to start debate on the measure Wednesday. Together, the Accordance Front, the Sadrists and the Kurdish parties hold 127 of parliament’s 275 seats – not enough to defeat the measure on their own, but passage of it over such large opposition would mean a failure of the legislation’s broader goal, reconciliation between the groups.
The oil bill is a top concern of Iraq’s Sunni minority, which is centered in regions of the country with little proven reserves and fears Shiites and Kurds in the oil-rich south and north will monopolize profits from the industry.
The 2005 constitution gave regional administrations considerable powers in managing oil resources in their areas, but the Sunnis want the new law to ensure the federal government maintains a strong role.
An influential Sunni Muslim organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, denouncing the draft bill Wednesday and saying its approval by the Cabinet is "religiously prohibited and is considered null. Those who did (sign on) should be questioned."
It said those who support the law "anger God for usurping public money." The association’s fatwas do not hold broad support among Iraq’s Sunnis but are influential among hard-liners.
U.S. officials are hoping passage of an oil bill will rally Sunni support for the government and the political process and reduce backing for insurgents.
The oil bill is part of a package of legislation that would establish rules for exploiting Iraq’s vast oil wealth and provide a formula for distributing revenues among the 18 provinces. Iraq’s proven oil reserves have been estimated at 115 billion barrels – the second largest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia.
Some petroleum experts believe the real figure is even higher because Iraq lagged behind other countries in using modern surveying technology during the years of international sanctions under Saddam Hussein.
Production has fallen from 3.5 million barrels a day to 2 million barrels a day since the U.S. invasion because of security problems, especially in the northern fields. The bill is aimed at encouraging international investments to modernize the fields.
Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish officials agreed last month on the distribution of revenues, with the northern Kurdish autonomous region getting 17% of the net revenues each month, after deducting federal government expenditures.
Kurds make up about 20% of the population nationwide. The rest of the revenues will be divided among the other provinces according to population.

(Dow Jones Newswires, Zawya)