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Iraq's oil is coming online slowly. Administering it is going to be difficult. And who knows what will happen once the United States pulls out?

12:00 AM, Jul 8, 2003 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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ROSY SCENARIO, Iraqi version, suddenly finds herself out of favor. Not so long ago, she was the belle of the postwar ball. With a bit of tweaking by highly skilled American technicians, and some money that could be generated by the sale of oil, Iraq's industry would be restored to its pre-Saddam glory. Oil would flow in sufficient quantities to dampen the upward pressure on prices, new areas would be opened to foreign investors--or American and British investors, anyway--and the stricken nation's economy would float to prosperity on a sea of black gold.

That is not to be. Thamir Ghadhban, the U.S.-appointed head of Iraq's oil ministry, told the World Economic Forum in Jordan that problems with power supply are forcing him to lower his year-end production target from 2.5 to 2.0 million barrels per day. With 500,000 barrels needed to fuel Iraq's power plants and to make gasoline, diesel, and kerosene for domestic use, and another 200,000 needed for reinjection to keep existing wells flowing, that leaves only a bit more than 1 million barrels per day available for export.

The OPEC cartel can easily make room for that volume of oil by cutting back its members' output in order to maintain prices if market conditions require. So at least in the near term any hopes American policymakers had that Iraq would provide relief from current $30 per barrel prices will have to be put on hold.

The long-term outlook is not much better. So far, coalition forces have been unable to prevent the sabotage of pipelines, power production facilities, or the theft of the vehicles used by oil-field workers to get to and from work. It is not unreasonable to assume that the security situation will improve. But that will remove only one of the many obstacles to the plans that the American administrator, Paul Bremer, has for the industry.

Bremer's vision for Iraq's oil--indeed for Iraq's economy--is worthy of Margaret Thatcher at her free-market best. He sees an economy in which state-owned and supported industries are starved of the subsidies that sustained them under the Saddam regime, in which domestic markets are open to free trade, and in which prices, exchange rates, and other variables are set by market forces. The oil industry would be operated for the benefit of the Iraqi people. And the new Iraq would set an example so irresistible that other Middle East oil producers would be forced to adopt the new model.

Why Bremer and Washington's policymakers think that the seeds of free enterprise will bear fruit in the desert soil of Iraq is something of a mystery--a triumph of hope over experience. After all, no oil producing country in the region has shown the slightest interest in such a model, the young protesters in Iran being a possible exception. As Fareed Zakaria points out in his new book, "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad," "Wealth in natural resources hinders both economic modernization and economic growth." With no need to tax its citizens, an oil-rich country has no need to offer good governance. The result is no taxation with no representation, either.

To restructure Iraq's oil industry so that it serves the interests of the Iraqi people and becomes a force for more competitively priced crude oil, the occupying powers will have to do more than simply requiring oil revenues be deposited into a trust fund to finance reconstruction and other good works. Occupation forces may stay in Iraq longer than we planned, but they can't stay forever. When they leave, revenues from oil sales can be redirected by the new government in any way it wants, including the construction of palaces for the new rulers, the financing of weapons programs, of the funding of anti-Israel terrorists.

Some American planners understand this and are now considering a two-pronged approach. First, the current monopoly producer would be broken up into several entities--five or six is the number most often heard. The shares of those companies would be distributed to the Iraqi people. The theory behind this approach is that any new government will find it difficult to renationalize the oil industry, and capture its revenues for the government, if it has to confiscate or otherwise acquire shares held by the majority of citizens.