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is guaranteeing supplies of oil to its clients in the US despite President Chavez’s vocal opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramirez has said.

Left-winger Chavez, who has angered Washington in the past by maintaining friendly ties with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, has sharply criticised the US and British military campaign against Baghdad, especially the civilian casualties it has caused.

Venezuela, the world’s number five oil exporter, is a major provider of crude oil and products to the US market. Iraq’s ambassador to Venezuela urged the world’s oil producers to halt shipments to the US and Britain.

Speaking on local television in Caracas, Ramirez said Chavez’s anti-war stance was no different to the positions expressed by other governments in the United Nations and by other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).

“The position that we have always maintained in Opec, and it is the policy of this government, is that oil should not be converted into a political weapon,” he said.

“We have guaranteed the supply of oil to all of our clients in the United States,” Ramirez added in an interview with the private Televen television channel. Venezuela normally supplies more than 13% of all US oil imports.

Chavez, who has strengthened ties with states seen as hostile by Washington, like Iran and Cuba, infuriated the US government in 2000 by travelling to Baghdad to become the first head of state to meet with Hussein since the 1991 Gulf War.

Any decision by Venezuela on its oil production and exports would be taken within Opec as a group, Ramirez said.

Venezuela, whose output and exports were slashed by a crippling opposition strike against Chavez in December and January, has been working to get oil operations back to normal since then. Oil exports are the country’s economic lifeblood and account for around half of government revenues. Since the anti-Chavez strike fizzled out early in February, Venezuelan officials have gone out of their way to convince the US government that their country will remain a reliable supplier of crude and oil products.

The government insists oil production has been restored to pre-strike levels of 3.1 million barrels per day. Striking oil workers, more than 16,000 of whom have been fired by the government, have put current output at around 2.45 million bpd.

Ramirez said the stoppage, which tried but failed to force the populist Chavez to resign and hold early elections, cost the country’s strategic oil industry $US6 billion in lost revenues and damage to installations.