BAGHDAD (Commodity Online): A plan by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to join a consortium advocating revenue transparency earned the praise of those watching its emerging oil sector.

Maliki during the weekend announced plans to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative by becoming an EITI candidate country in February.

The EITI builds transparency by creating a forum for the management of the country's oil revenues. Following a December oil auction, Baghdad said it was on the way to rivaling Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production.

Revenue Watch Institute, which promotes transparency in the oil and gas sector, lauded the decision as a historic step for Baghdad.

Iraq's history of conflict, regional division and corruption makes civil society's involvement in the EITI process especially important, said Karin Lissaker, director of Revenue Watch.

Iraq sits on some of the largest oil deposits in the world and looks to oil sales for the vast majority of its government revenue. Baghdad committed to implement the EITI in May 2008.

With well-managed oil resources, the future of the Iraqi people could be very bright, said EITI Chairman Peter Eigen.

Meanwhile, Iraq has invited 35 prequalified foreign companies to bid on contracts for the further development of six existing and operational oil fields and two gas fields.

The move, while vitally important to rebuilding this country's war-shattered economy, is expected to stoke more controversy over the future of Iraq's oil industry and raise many questions regarding unresolved oil legislation, experts say.

Six of the prequalified companies - British Petroleum (BP), BHP Billiton, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell, and Total - were already involved in noncompetitive negotiations with the ministry of oil to finalize service and consulting contracts seen as granting them a strong foothold in the country and a competitive edge over the others.

Major oil firms have been positioning themselves for years to gain access to Iraq's vast oil reserves, which are estimated at 115 billion barrels - the world's second largest after Saudi Arabia.

With the involvement of foreign firms, Iraq says it aims to add at least 500,000 b.p.d to its current production of 2.5 million b.p.d from these contracts.

Baghdad is already enmeshed in a bitter dispute with the semiautonomous Kurdish region over oil and gas deals it signed unilaterally with a slew of foreign companies including American firms.