Iraq seals drilling deals on 7 oilfields

BAGHDAD — Iraq's oil minister began counting the money Saturday even before the first wells were drilled, dubbing the country's second postwar oil auction a triumph even as international oil companies largely snubbed the most violent regions in the Middle East's last major oil bonanza.

The two days of bidding produced deals on only seven of the 15 fields on offer. Of those, four were in the stable southern Shiite heartland while two in the north went to the only company that expressed interest: Angola's Sonogal. The last was in central Iraq, in a province where violence has remained low.

The auction was key for Iraq. Its oil bidding in June — the first in over three decades — largely failed, with only one giant field awarded out of eight offered. The hope was for a better showing this time. The deals are critical for boosting Iraq's oil exports — and bringing in revenue to help rebuild after the 2003 U.S.-led war and decades of neglect and international sanctions under Saddam Hussein.

Iraq has not been able to raise output to even close to pre-2003 levels and is limping along at roughly 2.5 million barrels per day using technology desperately needing an overhaul. That's well short of Iraq's goal of joining the ranks of other OPEC heavyweights and reaching 12 million barrels a day in six years.

On Saturday, Russian private oil giant Lukoil teamed up with Norway's Statoil ASA to snatch the crown jewel of the auction, the 12.88 billion barrel West Qurna Phase 2 field in southern Iraq. It was something of a coup for Lukoil, which won the contract in 1997 under Saddam, only to see the dictator rescind the deal five years later.

The U.S. companies at the auction, including Exxon Mobil Corp., stayed on the sidelines except for one failed bid by Occidental over the two days at the heavily fortified Oil Ministry.