Iraq's southern oil exports rise, buyers still see delays
* Southern exports hit 2.35 million bpd so far in 2014
* January's export rate so far at post-Saddam high
* Increase may not last; buyers say February allocations cut
By Alex Lawler and Peg Mackey
LONDON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Oil exports from Iraq's southern terminals jumped by almost 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the first two weeks of 2014 from all of December, a sign of progress in delivering on a plan for significant supply growth.
Crude buyers said, however, that despite the rise in exports, Iraq was still catching up with loading delays caused partly by bad weather. Some customers said the State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) had cut their crude allocations for February.
Iraq's southern exports averaged 2.35 million bpd in the first 15 days of January, according to shipping data tracked by Reuters and to estimates from a tanker-tracking company. That is up from 2.08 million bpd in the month of December.
If sustained in the rest of the month, the volume would amount to the highest level since at least 2003. The southern ports typically handle almost all of Iraq's oil exports.
A return to sizeable growth, after a slowdown in 2013, is possible following Iraq's work to expand its southern port capacity. Together with signs of higher supply from Libya, the increase could weigh on global oil prices.
"The January loadings will be a test of what SOMO can export through the year," said Mohammed al-Jibouri, who headed SOMO after the fall of Saddam Hussein and later served as trade minister.
"The oil minister has said the work is finished at the terminals, so they should be capable of handling exports of more than 2.5 million barrels a day."
It remains to be seen whether the increase is sustainable, given creaky infrastructure and worsening violence in Iraq. A lack of storage capacity means production must be shut down if the weather gets too bad for tankers to load, industry sources say.
"Export capacity is probably a notch higher now than in the fourth quarter," a source with the tanker tracking company said. "However, I believe the uptick in January is partially due to the weather delays at the end of December."
In a sign that all has yet to go smoothly, several buyers of Iraq's Basrah Light crude - the grade exported from the south - this week said they would see a reduction in their February volumes.
"They have huge delays, and they need to catch up with loadings," a major buyer in Asia said. "So they had to reduce the number of cargoes by eight to 10 (for January-February)."
From the north, Iraq also exports about 300,000 bpd from its Kirkuk fields to Ceyhan in Turkey. Northern exports could increase further if the autonomous region of Kurdistan starts to sell oil via a pipeline to Turkey.
The Kurdish plan has angered Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatened on Sunday to cut central government funding for Kurdistan if the Kurds proceed with exports without Baghdad's approval. (Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Florence Tan; editing by Jane Baird)
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