WASHINGTON – The Bush administration indicated Tuesday that it had no plans to interfere with negotiations between Iraq and several Western oil giants to boost crude production in that country, despite concerns by some Democrats that the deal could inflame anti-U.S. sentiments.
"Iraq is a sovereign country, and it can make decisions based on how it feels that it wants to move forward in its development of its oil resources," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
"And if that means that our companies here in the United States can compete and win business, then that's for them and the Iraqis to decide," Perino added. "But I don't think the federal government of the United States needs to get involved."
The administration's position puts it at odds with Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who warn that the deals could fan the perception that U.S. involvement in Iraq was motivated by oil.
In a letter Monday, the senators asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try to block the oil deals.
Until Baghdad agrees on how to divide the nation's oil revenues, the presence of Western companies — including U.S.-based Exxon Mobil — will heighten tensions among Iraq's feuding sectarian groups "at the same time that American service members are fighting night and day to reduce the levels of violence," they wrote.
"This is clearly a matter of national security, which we believe should trump any and all commercial interests," the senators added.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said it was unlikely Rice would try to interfere.
"Since the United States has had no involvement in this, I'm not sure on what basis the United States could...block the Iraqi government from contracting in the way it sees fit," he said.
Likewise, Perino dismissed the senators' concerns as illogical.
"I'm curious as to why the Democrats seem to, on the one hand, want Iraq to take over more control of their own country, but on the other hand, want to continue to meddle in their business," she told reporters.
The Democrats responded that while Iraq may be sovereign, the U.S. is entitled to speak up because of the number of troops and dollars it has invested in the country's future.
"When it has been in our interest to try to get the Iraqi government to do something that this administration really wanted them to do, they do it," said Kerry.
The Iraq oil deals will likely be announced by the end of the month. The agreements, worth around $500 million each, are seen as a stopgap measure to begin ramping up oil production while Iraq's sectarian groups debate legislation that would divide the nation's oil revenues.
While modest in size, the contracts are expected to give the companies a significant bidding advantage over others in the future.
Last week, Iraq's oil ministry declined to name the companies set to receive the deals. The New York Times reported Thursday that Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil and Total were in the final stages of negotiations on the no-bid contracts.