Nuclear Scientist to Head Iraq's Oil Ministry
By Mariam Karouny
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, jailed and tortured under Saddam Hussein, is a newcomer to an oil industry he must rescue from corruption, poor investment and violence.
A prominent Shi'ite Islamist, Shahristani, who is to named Iraq's oil minister by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, will have to display both a firm hand to stamp out graft and smuggling and a silk glove to negotiate huge oil contracts.
Shahristani was once seen as a potential premier himself and became deputy speaker of parliament, but oil industry officials have voiced reservations about his lack of experience in the industry and his reputation as being unreceptive to advice.
A devout man close to Shi'ite religious figures, Shahristani edged out other candidates considered more suitable to lead a ministry that oversees the world's third largest known reserves of oil, including technocrat Thamir Ghadhban. But Iraq's volatile sectarian politics could have played in his favor.
He told close aides he was determined to fight corruption in the oil industry. Some negotiators said they were confident of his skills to help develop the sector because of his firmness and strong personality.
Born in August 1942, Shahristani, who says he recited mathematical formulas to help him survive in Saddam's torture chambers, has his work cut out.
Decades of war, international sanctions, under-investment and now widespread sabotage attacks have crippled Iraq's oil sector, which now has to import nearly half of its gasoline.
Oil multinationals eyeing the giant, largely undeveloped oilfields, are waiting until a new investment code with a legal and regulatory framework is in place, before they venture in.
Bombings, shootings and kidnappings that have scared foreign investors have cut oil exports down to 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd), below pre-war levels of about 2 million bpd.
Iraq relies heavily on its southern crude oil exports because sabotage bombings of pipelines have repeatedly hurt efforts to export from the north via Turkey. Exports from the north are still on hold.
Reviving oil sales is key to rebuilding the country's shattered economy. But sharing oil revenues is a major bone of contention among competing Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, so the soft-spoken Shahristani will have to tread lightly to avoid inflaming Iraq's explosive sectarian politics.
A confidant of top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shahristani, 64, played a vital role in forming the powerful Shi'ite Alliance bloc, which has a near-majority in parliament.
Shahristani says he was tortured by Saddam for refusing to work on a nuclear arms program.
Saddam's agents arrested Shahristani and told his wife and three children he would be away for three days. He spent 11 years in jail, some in solitary confinement.
After escaping from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison during the 1991 Gulf war, he spent the next 12 years in exile in London and Iran. His opponents, including many Sunni Arabs, have accused him of being too close to non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran.