The US is preparing to install an American chairman on a planned management team of the Iraqi oil industry, providing further ammunition to critics who have questioned the Bush administration's agenda in the Middle East.
The administration is planning to structure the potentially vast Iraqi oil industry like a US corporation, with a chairman and chief executive and a 15-strong board of international advisers.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, it has lined up the former chief executive of the US division of Royal Dutch/Shell, Philip Carroll, to take the job of chairman.
Large scale decisions on investment, capital spending and production are likely to need the approval of the advisory board, which will act like a board of directors. The day-to-day management team will be vetted by US officials and is likely to be made up of existing and expatriate Iraqi oil officials.
The structure is likely to anger opponents of the administration who argue that the US is wielding too much power in Iraq.
By involving non-Iraqis, the US could also expose itself to the accusation that it is attempting to take control of the industry and open the door to foreign investment by major western oil companies - a perception the Bush administration is keen to avoid.
The Middle East has, since the early-to-mid-1970s, largely closed the door on foreign oil firms - but contracts have been awarded to engineering and construction firms such as Bechtel, which was recently handed a $600m (£380m) commission in Iraq by the US Agency for International Development.
US and Iraqi engineers have resumed modest oil production in the south of the country, in fields close to Basra.
The other major field in the north, near Kirkuk, has yet to be restarted, but is expected to begin pumping oil in the next few days. The Basra fields produced 60% of Iraq's pre-war production of around 2.5m barrels a day.
The US is pushing for an end to economic sanctions to allow the oil to be freely exported.
A handful of Iraqi oil officials have been attempting to restore some order to the country's energy infrastructure and have been meeting regularly with the US military in Baghdad. The US has been eager to get the cooperation of the skilled Iraqi oil administration, but an attempt to impose a structure on the industry with outside involvement could cause friction.
The oil minister in the ousted Saddam regime, Amer Mohammed Rasheed, is on the US's most-wanted list.
Iraq, with 112bn barrels of proven reserves, is second only to Saudi Arabia, and has the potential to become a superpower in the oil industry. Experts believe that with billions of dollars of investment in the nation's crippled infrastructure it could produce up to 6m barrels a day within five or six years. There are believed to be 200bn barrels of probable reserves.
The oil beginning to pump in Iraq is being used for domestic purposes. Once exports are up and running again, US and British officials have said the aim is to put the proceeds into a fund to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. But details of the fund, including who would administer it, have been scant.
The new management team and part of the advisory board are expected to be named next week. The chief executive would play a similar role to the former oil minister and would represent Iraq at meetings of Opec, the organization of oil exporting nations. The position of vice chairman is expected to be filled by Fadhil Othman, who led Iraq's oil marketing group before Saddam came to power 24 years ago.
Thamir Gadhban, a senior oil ministry official working to restore order to the industry in Baghdad, told the Journal that he expected the chief executive to come from the ranks of the existing hierarchy. "The Iraqi oil industry is not a new one, and there are experienced people in the ministry of oil and its organizations," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003