By Aref Mohammed
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq began loading oil from a long-awaited new floating Single Point Mooring (SPM) platform in the Gulf on Thursday, two sources at the state-owned South Oil Company said, in a breakthrough that could substantially boost its exports.
"We started the loading at 2:45 pm (1145 GMT). The loading process is normal. The situation of pipes and the SPM is stable, and we have no problems," said one of the sources.
The average loading rate into the tanker Maersk Hirado was 22,000 barrels per hour, the source said.
Iraq's oil exports have been held back by a lack of loading capacity in the Gulf after decades of neglect of infrastructure caused by war and economic sanctions.
The opening of its new platform, built by Australian construction firm Leighton, had been held up for weeks, with officials blaming poor weather.
The new terminal is the first of a planned four, each of which will ultimately have a capacity of 850,000 barrels per day, adding 3.4 million barrels of export capacity to make way for a doubling of Iraq's oil production in the next few years.
For now, the South Oil Company says the first platform will increase its exports by 300,000 barrels per day.
Iraq said this week it had increased total output to above 3 million barrels per day for the first time since 1979. Iraq's output last month was just 2.65 million bpd, with production held back by a lack of export capacity. Its exports have been slightly more than 2 million bpd.
The Iraqi government aims to more than double its oil output in the next few years and has set a long-term goal of 12 million bpd that would rank it alongside Saudi Arabia and Russia as one of the world's oil superpowers.
While many experts say that goal is too ambitious, Iraq is still expected to be the biggest source of new oil in the world over the next few years.
Leighton has said it is cooperating with Australian police in an investigation into whether its employees bribed Iraqi officials over the contract to build the new terminal. Iraq has said it is investigating the case but has not yet found evidence of wrongdoing by Iraqi officials.
(Reporting by Aref Mohammed; Writing by Peter Graff, editing by William Hardy)