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Iraq to open oil fields to foreign firms

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Iraq is this week due to unveil which foreign firms have won contracts to develop its oil and gas fields, nearly four decades after Saddam Hussein’s party nationalised the country’s energy infrastructure.

The deals, likely to be announced live on television, will provide the government with much-needed revenue as it struggles to rebuild the country after three wars and 20 years of debilitating economic sanctions.

The event, originally billed to last for two days starting on Monday, was unexpectedly delayed by one day due to sandstorms that prevented oil company representatives and international media from landing in Baghdad on Sunday.

“The meeting will now start on Tuesday and if necessary continue into the following day,” oil ministry spokesman Assem Jihad told AFP.

Thirty-one companies have submitted bids to develop six giant oil fields and two gas fields. The oil deposits, holding known reserves of 43 billion barrels of crude, are in southern and northern Iraq while the gas concessions are west and northeast of Baghdad.

“Our principal objective is to increase our oil production from 2.4 million barrels per day to more than four million in the next five years,” Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani said in an interview with Iraqi public television.

Increasing production to that level will, according to him, pump an extra $US1.7 trillion ($A2.11 trillion) into government coffers over the next 20 years.

Shahristani has said that only $US30 billion ($A37.31 billion) of that sum will go to the companies that have extracted the oil.

“This is a huge amount that would finance infrastructure projects across Iraq — schools, roads, airports, housing, hospitals,” he said, insisting that the country would retain control over its oil reserves.

For energy firms, meanwhile, the appeal of the Iraqi contracts is the chance to plant a foot firmly in the country, the first time such an opportunity has been offered since the Iraq Petroleum Company was nationalised by the Baath party in 1972, seven years before Saddam took power.

“Thanks to sanctions and war, no company has wanted or been able to invest,” Ruba Husari, an energy expert and the founder of the website iraqoilforum广西桑拿,, explained.

“Today, the country is stable, in both its security and its institutions.”

A source involved in the bidding, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Iraq as “one of the rare countries in the world where the coming decades will bring real growth in production.”

“It’s a rare opportunity,” the source said.

Not all energy companies are happy, though, with the terms of the contracts being offered by Baghdad.

The foreign firms awarded deals will have to partner with Iraqi government-owned firms, principally the South Oil Company (SOC), and share management of the fields despite fully financing their development.

They will be paid a fixed fee per barrel, not a share of the profits, and the fee will only be paid once a production threshold set by the government is reached.

“This raises the question of the profitability of the contract,” the source said. “The companies are the ones investing, but have a big problem with the fact that management will be shared.”

But international energy giants cannot afford to ignore the contracts on offer.

“For foreign companies, this is like a first step,” the source said. “They are saying, ‘Let’s accept these terms, even though they’re not our preferred model, just to stay in the game, and hope conditions improve’.”

Jackson giraffes need new home

Besides his three children and millions of fans, Michael Jackson has also left behind less likely progeny – a dancing chimp, four giraffes and other exotic pets.

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To the delight of tabloids and the dismay of some animal rights activists, Jackson created a private zoo at Neverland, his 1,050-hectare (2,600-acre) fantasy estate in California.

While the fate of his opulent personal theme park hangs in the balance, nearly all of the animals have already been moved to new homes in the past few years as Jackson’s personal and financial woes worsened.

Jackson’s most famous pet was Bubbles, a chimpanzee he adopted from a medical laboratory in 1985. Like Jackson himself, Bubbles has generated years of intense press speculation, some of it perhaps apocryphal.

As a young chimp, Bubbles was said to have shared Jackson’s bedroom and bathroom and learned to dance the King of Pop’s signature moonwalk.

Bubbles was even rumored to have attempted suicide after Jackson parted ways with his ape companion, whose growing size made him a danger to the King of Pop’s young children.

The chimpanzee’s trainer said he was alive and well at a California animal sanctuary, denying a tabloid report that Bubbles died and his body carefully preserved by a German doctor.

Trainer Bob Dunn said Jackson thought of Bubbles as “his first child” and regularly visited the chimpanzee, who recognized him.

“Chimpanzees are intelligent. They remember people and stuff. Bubbles and Michael were close friends and playmates,” Dunn told Britain’s News of the World tabloid. Contacted by AFP, Dunn declined comment, saying he was negotiating a deal to speak publicly about Bubbles.

Jackson’s two tigers, Thriller and Sabu, were taken in at another sanctuary in California run by former actress Tippi Hedren.

The Voices of the Wild Foundation, which runs an animal preserve in Arizona, adopted Jackson’s four giraffes along with reptiles and exotic birds including the King of Pop’s purported favorite, the Amazon parrot Rikki.

Freddie Hancock, the founder and director of the non-profit group, said it was appealing to Jackson fans to send donations in his memory so that the preserve can shelter more animals in need of homes.

Hancock said the foundation also hoped to put up a plaque dedicated to the superstar, for whom she had nothing but praise.

She toured Neverland to arrange the animal adoption two years ago when Jackson’s entourage advised him to downsize. She said the animals had “beautiful facilities” in Neverland.

“I think he just loved animals. And when you’re an individual who loves animals, the animals know that,” Hancock told AFP. “He loved watching all of their different characteristics.”

But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was much more critical of Jackson. The animal rights group filed a complaint to US authorities in January 2006, charging that the exotic animals in the Neverland zoo were being mistreated.

Department officials inspected the estate’s menagerie but found no evidence of abuse or neglect.

Michael Jackson’s interest in animals was a constant throughout his life.

When he was 14 years old, he had his first number-one hit single with “Ben,” inspired by his pet rat.

Gaza struggling to rebuild, six months on

Six months after the Israeli offensive and two years into a blockade, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are struggling to survive and sliding into despair, the Red Cross has said.

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“The people living there find themselves unable to rebuild their lives and are sliding ever deeper into despair,” the International Committee of the Red Cross reported.

The report said that seriously ill patients were not getting the treatment they needed and thousands of Gazans whose homes were destroyed during Israel’s 22-day military operation at the beginning of the year were still without shelter.

“The poorest residents in particular have exhausted their coping mechanisms and often have to sell off their belongings to be able to buy enough to eat,” said Antoine Grand, head of the ICRC’s sub-delegation in Gaza.

“Worst affected are the children, who make up more than half of Gaza’s population,” he added.

Israel imposed a blockade of Gaza in June 2007 when the Islamist movement Hamas, which is pledged to the Jewish state’s destruction, took control of the Palestinian territory.

In late December last year, Israel launched an offensive in Gaza to stop Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israel, which claimed 12 Israeli lives. Israeli air raids and tanks destroyed swathes of the coastal enclave and 1,400 Palestinians were killed, according to Palestinian emergency services.

The ICRC report said in the wake of the Israeli offensive essential water and sanitation infrastructure remain largely insufficient and that the equivalent of 28 Olympic-size swimming pools of basically untreated sewage is daily pumped into the Mediterranean Sea.

Some 4.5 billion dollars pledged by donor countries to rebuild Gaza is of little use if building supplies cannot get past the Israeli blockade, the ICRC said, calling for the lifting of restrictions on the movement of people and goods.

“Israel has the right to protect its population against attacks,” said Grand. “But does that mean that 1.5 million people in Gaza do not have the right to live a normal life?”

The Geneva-based humanitarian organisation said Gaza urgently needed to import medical equipment and building supplies including cement and steel, and its farmers needed access to their land in the buffer zone and its fishermen should be allowed back into deeper waters.

The ICRC also called for political authorities and the armed groups in Gaza to take the necessary steps to help the civilians.

“Humanitarian action can be no substitute for the credible political steps that are needed to bring about the changes the population of Gaza needs,” the ICRC said.

Southern Ocean carbon sink ‘slowing’

An ozone hole could be the reason why the Southern Ocean is losing its effectiveness as a carbon sink, writes New Scientist’s Kate Ravilious.

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In theory, oceans should absorb more CO2 as levels of the gas in the atmosphere rise.

Measurements show that this is happening in most ocean regions, but strangely not in the Southern Ocean, where carbon absorption has flattened off. Climate models fail to reproduce this puzzling pattern.

The Southern Ocean is a major carbon sink, guzzling around 15 per cent of CO2 emissions.

However, between 1987 and 2004, carbon uptake in the region was reduced by nearly 2.5 billion tonnes – equivalent to the amount of carbon that all the world’s oceans absorb in one year.

Premature effect

To figure out what is going on, Andrew Lenton, from the University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, France, and his colleagues created a coupled ocean and atmosphere climate model, to investigate carbon absorption in oceans. Crucially, they included changes in the concentration of stratospheric ozone since 1975.

By running their model with and without the ozone depletion since 1975, Lenton and his colleagues were able to show that the ozone hole is responsible for the Southern Ocean’s carbon saturation.

The effect could be down to the way decreasing stratospheric ozone and rising greenhouse gases are altering the radiation balance of the Earth’s atmosphere. This has been predicted to alter and strengthen the westerly winds that blow over the Southern Ocean.

“We expected this transition to a windier regime, but it has occurred much earlier than we thought, seemingly because of the ozone hole,” says Lenton.

‘Unexpected effect’

Stronger surface winds enhance circulation of ocean waters, encouraging carbon-rich waters to rise from the deep, limiting the capability of surface water to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Furthermore, the higher carbon levels in surface waters make them more acidic – bad news for many forms of ocean life, such as coral and squid.

“This result illustrates how complex the chain of cause and effect can be in the Earth system. No one would ever have predicted from first principles that increasing CFCs would have the effect of decreasing uptake of ocean carbon dioxide,” says Andrew Watson, from the University of East Anglia, UK.