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Iraq official says oil exports jump in February

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's daily oil exports surged to 2.8 million barrels per day in February, some half million barrels more than in the previous month, as international oil companies developed fields and export infrastructure, a senior official said on Saturday.

The increase is crucial for Iraq, which sits atop the world's fourth largest proven reserves of conventional crude but has been struggling to rebuild the sector after years of war, sanctions, neglect and more recently, sabotage. Oil revenues make up nearly 95 percent of its budget.

The country's deputy prime minister for energy, Hussain al-Shahristani, also said Saturday in the southern of Basra that average production, including the exports, exceeded 3.5 million barrels per day last month. He described the figures as “unprecedented.”

He said the daily production would have reached 4 million barrels if the country's northern self-ruled Kurdish region had contributed its share of about 400,000 barrels a day to the figure, as had been estimated in the 2014 budget. The Kurds, who stopped exporting oil more than a year ago over a payment row, have sought greater control over oil in their crude-rich region, while Baghdad argues that it should be under central government control.

Iraq has been struggling to develop its oil and gas sectors since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when deteriorated security scared many investors away. But since 2008, when security started to improve, the country has awarded more than a dozen oil and gas deals to international energy companies such as the U.S.'s Exxon Mobil, the UK's BP, France's Total and others. Daily oil production and exports have climbed steadily since 2011, nearly two years after Iraq awarded rights to develop its major oil fields to international oil companies.

Oil Minister, Abdul-Karim Elaibi, said his ministry plans to pump 3.7 million barrels per day this year and to raise exports to nearly 3 million barrels per day.

Iraq initially set a target of 12 million barrels a day by 2017, but it is now considering a downward revision to fewer than 10 million barrels, in part because of infrastructure bottlenecks. It later lowered targets to between 5-6 million barrels per day in 2015 and between 9-10 million barrels per day by 2020, a level that could be sustained for 20 years.

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Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sinansm

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