Azeris celebrate turning on the oil tap to prosperity

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Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim. But today, any restrictions that the faith may impose are likely to be set aside as the country takes a day off to celebrate a decisive moment in its troubled history, along with a bevy of international dignitaries, including a Foreign Office minister, and the top brass from British Petroleum.

The reason why the world's power brokers have descended on this former Soviet republic is oil, and lots if it. That, and a political contest between the planet's biggest, and roughest players - from Russia, to Iran, Turkey and the United States - for access to the next century's energy reserves.

Today Azerbaijan will celebrate the first flow of oil from the Caspian, produced by the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), a consortium of oil companies led by BP, but dominated by the US. It is the first reward from the so-called "Deal of the Century" - the rights, shared by five consortia, to extract or explore for Azerbaijan's huge Caspian oil reserves.

To mark the occasion, the President, Haidar Aliyev will be flown by helicopter to an AIOC oil platform, Chirag-1, 80 miles out in the Caspian where, watched by a party of ministers and top oil executives - including the Foreign Office minister, Derek Fatchett and BP's chairman, Peter Sutherland - he will symbolically turn on the oil.

Today's oil will be but a trickle when compared with the 700-800,000 barrels a day that Azerbaijan expects to extract from the Caspian by 2010. It will be routed through the first of two "early" oil pipes, a refurbished Russian system that runs through Chechnya (where Moscow hopes it will act as a political lubricant) to the Black Sea.

The second early oil route runs westwards to the Black Sea through Georgia, although that pipeline will not be repaired until the end of next year. The unresolved issue is the path of a far larger pipeline which will carry Azeri oil to the west. Research is under way into three possibilities put forward by the AIOC: the same routes as the early oil, or via Georgia to the southern Turkish port of Ceyhan.