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Asian Countries Hope to Win Oil Contracts in Iraq

As Iraq is debating a new law that will set guidelines under which authorities can negotiate with foreign oil firms, several energy-hungry countries in Asia hope to be among the first to sign contracts to explore the world's third largest oil reserves. Claudia Blume at VOA's Asia News in Hong Kong reports.

By the end of this month, the Iraqi parliament is expected to decide on a new oil law. If passed, the legislation will allow Iraq to sign contracts with foreign companies for the exploration and production of the country's vast untapped reserves.

Some energy-hungry countries in Asia - such as China, India, Vietnam and South Korea - are hoping they will be among the first to take advantage of the new law. Iraq, in urgent need of foreign investment, is actively courting countries in the region.

Earlier this month, Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited South Korea and Japan and invited investment in his country's reconstruction, including the oil sector. Iraqi and South Korean oil ministers signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in the development of Iraqi oil fields.

Tokyo pledged a loan of more than $850 million for the building of an oil export facility in Basrah, as part of a wider aid package for Iraq.

Clara Tan is an energy sector analyst with Singapore-based Energy Intelligence. She says Japan hopes its generous aid pledges will be rewarded with access to the country's oil reserves.

"I think part of that is - I will give you access to my energy sector and I hope that you will help me in terms of financing loans or in terms of technology expertise," Tan saidl

Some analysts think Iraq's first foreign contract to develop oil resources may not go to American and British oil companies but to China, a country that sat out the Iraq war.

Clara Tan says Beijing is discussing the revival of an oilfield deal it signed in the midst of U.N. sanctions that barred direct dealings with Iraq's oil industry.

"China has a contract signed a few years back under the old regime under Saddam Hussein," she said. "Now they are looking at renegotiating the contract, so talks have been going on for some time, so they have visited China and China has come to Baghdad to talk to them on the renegotiations."

Iraq's tense security situation is one of the biggest obstacles for foreign companies wanting to explore the country's oil fields.

But some experts say China might have an edge over other countries because its oil companies are so desperate to find new energy sources that they may be willing to take more risks than others.