Oil workers unions based in southern Iraq say they will continue to fight the implementation of a proposed oil law despite the government's insistence that the unions have no legal standing.
The measure, intended to foster reconciliation by ensuring a fair distribution of the nation's oil wealth, is among the most important "benchmarks" by which U.S. commanders are to judge progress in Iraq next month.
The oil workers are among the most vocal opponents of the proposed law, arguing that it would fuel regional rivalries and enrich foreign companies at Iraqis' expense.
Iraq's new oil minister, Hussein Sharistani, undercut their standing last week by invoking a Saddam Hussein-era law outlawing labor unions in the public sector. The law was one of the only measures from the Saddam era retained by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which ruled for one year after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"Most of the laws under Saddam are the laws of the country that are still followed, so this is not an exception," Mr. Sharistani said in an interview in Baghdad. "That particular law was reinstated by the CPA, so even after the fall of the regime, that was the law."
The Southern Oil Workers Union (SOWU), which represents 10 unions in southern Iraq, charges that Mr. Sharistani is acting simply to silence their opposition to the oil measure.
The proposal is designed to encourage outside investment to develop oil fields while ensuring a fair distribution of oil revenues among Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. The unions say that the law is too generous to foreign oil companies and that the proposed revenue distribution is unfair.
Mr. Sharistani "called us spoilers of the oil law," said Faleh Aboud, the general secretary of the SOWU, which dates back to the 1930s and was reorganized after the fall of Saddam's government.
Since the invasion, it has been one of the only bodies in Iraq able to enforce its will without violence, organizing demonstrations and brief strikes that have garnered higher wages for members.
The oil workers have worked tirelessly for changes to the measure before the parliament votes, meeting with various political parties and aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"I'm very optimistic the oil law will not pass," Mr. Aboud said.
Aside from Mr. al-Maliki's Cabinet and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — the U.S. government's closest Shi'ite political ally — no major Iraqi political bloc supports the current draft, which has been tabled at least until the parliament returns next month from its summer recess.
Washington's other close Iraqi allies, the two Kurdish political parties that rule the semi-independent northern part of the country, have rejected the draft. They say it gives too much power to the central government.
The draft places all future oil deals in the hands of a "federal council" led by the prime minister. The Kurds would like their regional government to be able to sign its own oil deals with foreign companies.
"We have been suffering from oil," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of parliament who often represents the Kurds in high-level meetings and negotiations. "Oil has always been used by the central government. Weapons were bought through that oil, and we were killed by the weapons. We have all the rights to ask for a share that would satisfy our demands."
Shi'ite parties — especially the Sadr Current, which is loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fadhila Party, a Sadrist offshoot that is powerful in Basra — have complained that the measure would allow the federal council to sign deals giving unprecedented rights to foreign companies.
Sunni parties, including an alliance that walked out of Mr. al-Maliki's national unity government last week, have complained that the proposal is too vague about how the oil will be sold and how revenues will be shared.
"Otherwise, we will end with disturbances when a region sells its own oil independently of Baghdad," said Alaa Makki, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "There will be great corruption and maybe civil wars between the regions because many of the fields are shared between regions."