Backed by armed bodyguards, international oil executives have flocked to Basra to survey their potentially lucrative prizes: the fields that they hope will one day be pumping out dramatically greater amounts of cheap, plentiful crude.
For their companies, the fields that they won the rights to develop in two biddings rounds last year are their first foray into Iraq's oil sector in over three decades.
For Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the executives and their investments are a vital part of his bid to win a second term in March 7 elections. Al-Maliki has billed himself to voters as the leader that can ensure the development of Iraq's dilapidated oil sector and bring in billions of dollars to rebuild the country's struggling economy.
Al-Maliki's promises could take years to fulfill and many experts see his predictions for increasing oil output as wildly optimistic. But what matters for the premier is persuading voters to keep him in his post to shepherd the process.
"Al-Maliki can present himself as a guarantor to these plans ... whether they are going to meet their huge targets or not," Mideast oil analyst Samuel Ciszuk of the London-based IHS Global Insight said.
The southern city and province of Basra — home to 70 percent of Iraq's daily oil output and its only Persian Gulf outlet — is a key litmus test for al-Maliki. Five of the fields awarded in the auctions are located near the city, and representatives from 11 oil companies have been visiting since early this month to meet with oil officials and tour the fields.