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Iraq opens bidding on 8 oil, natural gas fields

BAGHDAD — Iraq opened international bidding for eight enormous oil and gas fields Monday, paving the way for investment in a nation with some of the world's largest petroleum reserves.

If approved, contracts to update and manage those fields could involve the biggest foreign stake in Iraq since its oil industry was nationalized more than 30 years ago and help Iraq reach its goal of nearly doubling petroleum production by 2013.

That could be good news with the price for a barrel of oil breaching $143 for the first time ever Monday. But the contracts won't be signed for a year, and if Western firms win a dominant role, it could feed perceptions that U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein to get at Iraq's natural resources.

Those concerns were heightened by expectations that Iraq would announce short-term no-bid consulting contracts with five Western oil firms Monday. The New York Times reported about two weeks ago that the firms included Royal Dutch Shell PLC, BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron and Total.

But Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told a news conference Monday that the Iraqi government was still negotiating with the companies, which he did not identify. He said the firms were demanding a share of oil production while Iraq wants to pay in cash.

The minister said the short-term contracts were meant to boost production until the government awards longer-term deals next June. But some believe the consulting contracts could give the winning firms an advantage in bidding for the development contracts, which al-Shahristani said Monday would include 35 foreign companies.

The firms he named included seven from the United States, three from Britain and others from Russia, China and other countries.

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