BAGHDAD, Iraq — An American official met today with Iraq's two most senior deputy oil ministers for the first time and warned them not to make any changes in their hierarchy without the approval of the allied forces in control of the country.
The meeting between Gary Vogler, an officer on the coalition forces' reconstruction team, and the Iraqi deputy ministers, Mazen Muhammad Ali Jumaa and Hussain Suliman al-Hadithy, occurred in the still-darkened halls of the Iraqi Oil Ministry — one of the very few government buildings to have survived the looting of Baghdad intact — and came as American planners continue to assemble a team that will oversee the reconstruction of Iraq's vast but worn oil industry.
Iraqis expected to take a leading role are Thamer al-Ghadhban, who most recently worked as the ministry's director for planning, as well as an expatriate, Hashem al-Kharasan, former general director of the northern part of Iraq's state-owned oil company. Reached by telephone today in Tunisia, the American-educated Mr. Kharasan declined to comment on whether he had been offered the leading role in Iraq's oil future.
In an interview, Mr. Ghadhban, who was educated in part in England and speaks fluent English, laid out his views on the oil industry, where the key question is whether it will remain in state hands, as under Saddam Hussein, or be privatized. Mr. Ghadhban said the path of privatization would not be alien to Iraq, where the ministry last year had planned to sell off small parts of the industry, like filling stations.
Still, he cautioned against moving too quickly. The laws on the books, written during the nationalization of the oil industry in the early 1970's, still require oil to be owned by the state, he said. The law would have to be rewritten by a new government before any type of privatization could begin.
"We are not against cooperating with the Americans — they are the only recognized power here now," he said, in his office stripped of phones by looters. Still, "we have intellectual people in Iraq and very nationalist people," he continued, adding: "The oil issue is not simple. It has to be carefully handled."
Particularly sensitive is the issue of expatriate Iraqis who will be central to the American team. Resentment runs deep among local Iraqis, who say they endured Mr. Hussein's rule, while exiles were safely offering criticism.
"Many people stayed in Iraq," Mr. Jumaa said. "Most Iraqi people think those people deserve to take the positions. They suffered more than the others. We were under pressure. It doesn't mean because we stayed we were within the top regime and now should be second-class citizens. For myself, I wouldn't accept this fact."
Mr. Vogler shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and added, "That's human nature."
One exile likely to be more palatable to Iraqis is Mr. Kharasan. General director of Iraq's vast Northern Oil Company for years, he was known as an efficient and fair manager who was well liked by his staff, said a former colleague, Amir Allous.
"He's a good manager and a leader," said Mr. Allous, who worked with Mr. Kharasan in the northern oil field. Mr. Kharasan smoked cigars, liked to play golf and was married to a Briton.
Oil jobs were some of the most desirable in Iraq. The post of minister was reserved for Saddam Hussein's friends and political allies, like Amir Muhammad Rashid, the oil minister when the war began. Mr. Rashid, who was wanted by coalition forces, surrendered to American authorities on Monday.
Mr. Jumaa said the country's refineries were now working at about 30 percent capacity. Oil has yet to start pumping in the large northern fields, but gas flows that power electricity plants have resumed, he said.
American officials will meet with the heads of all parts of Iraq's state-owned oil sector in two or three days, Mr. Vogler said. The Bush administration's choice to head the oil team — widely believed to be Philip J. Carroll, the former chief executive of the Shell Oil Company in the United States — is not expected in Iraq for at least several more days, he said.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company