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Oil rises above $103 ahead of Iran nuclear talks

NEW YORK (AP) -- Oil prices tracked a rising U.S. stock market and settled near $104 a barrel Thursday, while traders turned their attention to negotiations this weekend over Iran's nuclear program.

Benchmark oil for May delivery gained 94 cents to finish at $103.64 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It hit an intraday high of $104.24.

In London, Brent crude rose $1.65 to settle at $121.52 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

Crude has jumped from $75 in October as investors worried a military attack by Israel or the U.S. on Iran's nuclear facilities could disrupt global crude supplies. However, oil has slid from $110 last month amid optimism meetings between Iran and the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany that begin Saturday in Turkey could ease tensions.

"If negotiations were to succeed and some acceptable compromise achieved, the energy markets would breathe a collective sigh of relief and prices would decline," said Richard Soultanian of NUS Consulting. He estimated concern that Iran's crude exports will be cut by a military conflict or tighter sanctions has added about $15 to the price of oil.

Investors are also eyeing China's first quarter economic growth figures, due Friday, as the Asian giant is a major consumer of energy products.

Despite the concerns about supplies from Iran — including an oil embargo by the US and the European Union — the International Energy Agency said that during the first three months of 2012 demand weakend while output from OPEC countries increased.

"The cycle of repeatedly tightening fundamentals evident since 2009 has been broken for now," the Paris-based IEA said in its monthly oil market report. "Further surprises almost inevitably lurk around the corner for both demand and supply. But for now at least, the earlier tide of remorseless market tightening looks to have turned."

The IEA also estimated that global oil stockpiles rose by over 1 million barrels a day during the first quarter of the year.

"It is clear that stockpiling so far has been driven more by concerns on supplies for the upcoming summer, after sanctions on Iran fully take effect, than by favorable storage economics," the IEA said.

In other energy trading in New York, heating oil added 5.14 cents to finish at $3.1663 per gallon and gasoline futures increased by 6.12 cents to end at $3.3567 per gallon.

A 10-month slide in natural gas prices took a breather after the government said U.S. supplies didn't grow as much as expected last week. The futures contract price slipped by just a tenth of a penny to finish at $1.983 per 1,000 cubic feet. That's a 10-year low, but the prices was relatively stable compared with Wednesday, when fears of surging supplies sent natural gas futures tumbling 2.3 percent to the lowest price since Jan. 28, 2002


AP writers Alex Kennedy and Pablo Gorondi contributed to this report.