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Greg Muttitt: Whatever Happened to Iraqi Oil?

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After elections in 2010, the country's leading politicians couldn't even agree on how to form a government until the Iraqi Supreme Court forced them to. This record of haplessness, along with rampant corruption, significant repression, and a revival of sectarianism can all be traced back to American decisions in the occupation years. Tragically, these persistent ills have manifested themselves in a recent spate of car-bombings and other bloody attacks.

Washington's Yen for Oil

In the period before and around the invasion, the Bush administration barely mentioned Iraqi oil, describing it reverently only as that country's "patrimony." As for the reasons for war, the administration insisted that it had barely noticed Iraq had one-tenth of the world's oil reserves. But my new book reveals documents I received, marked SECRET/NOFORN, that laid out for the first time pre-war oil plans hatched in the Pentagon by arch-neoconservative Douglas Feith's Energy Infrastructure Planning Group (EIPG).

In November 2002, four months before the invasion, that planning group came up with a novel idea: it proposed that any American occupation authority not repair war damage to the country's oil infrastructure, as doing so "could discourage private sector involvement." In other words, it suggested that the landscape should be cleared of Iraq's homegrown oil industry to make room for Big Oil.

When the administration worried that this might disrupt oil markets, EIPG came up with a new strategy under which initial repairs would be carried out by KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. Long-term contracts with multinational companies, awarded by the U.S. occupation authority, would follow. International law notwithstanding, the EIPG documents noted cheerily that such an approach would put "long-term downward pressure on [the oil] price" and force "questions about Iraq's future relations with OPEC."

At the same time, the Pentagon planning group recommended that Washington state that its policy was "not to prejudice Iraq's future decisions regarding its oil development policies." Here, in writing, was the approach adopted in the years to come by the Bush administration and the occupation authorities: lie to the public while secretly planning to hand Iraq over to Big Oil.

There turned out, however, to be a small kink in the plan: the oil companies declined the American-awarded contracts, fearing that they would not stand up in international courts and so prove illegitimate. They wanted Iraq first to have an elected permanent government that would arrive at the same results. The question then became how to get the required results with the Iraqis nominally in charge. The answer: install a friendly government and destroy the Iraqi oil industry.

In July 2003, the U.S. occupation established the Iraqi Governing Council, a quasi-governmental body led by friendly Iraqi exiles who had been out of the country for the previous few decades. They would be housed in an area of Baghdad isolated from the Iraqi population by concrete blast walls and machine gun towers, and dubbed the Green Zone.  There, the politicians would feast, oblivious to and unconcerned with the suffering of the rest of the population.

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The first post-invasion Oil Minister was Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a man who held the country's homegrown oil expertise in open contempt. He quickly set about sacking the technicians and managers who had built the industry following nationalization in the 1970s and had kept it running through wars and sanctions. He replaced them with friends and fellow party members. One typical replacement was a former pizza chef.

The resulting damage to the oil industry exceeded anything caused by missiles and tanks. As a result the country found itself -- as Washington had hoped -- dependent on the expertise of foreign companies. Meanwhile, not only did the Coalition Provisional authority (CPA) that oversaw the occupation lose $6.6 billion of Iraqi money, it effectively suggested corruption wasn't something to worry about.  A December 2003 CPA policy document recommended that Iraq follow the lead of Azerbaijan, where the government had attracted oil multinationals despite an atmosphere of staggering corruption ("less attractive governance") simply by offering highly profitable deals. 

Now, so many years later, the corruption is all-pervasive and the multinationals continue to operate without oversight, since the country's ministry is run by the equivalent of pizza chefs.

The first permanent government was formed under Prime Minister Maliki in May 2006. In the preceding months, the American and British governments made sure the candidates for prime minister knew what their first priority had to be: to pass a law legalizing the return of the foreign multinationals -- tossed out of the country in the 1970s -- to run the oil sector.

The law was drafted within weeks, dutifully shown to U.S. officials within days, and to oil multinationals not long after. Members of the Iraqi parliament, however, had to wait seven months to see the text.

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How Temporary the Victory of Big Oil?

The trouble was: getting it through that parliament proved far more difficult than Washington or its officials in Iraq had anticipated. In January 2007, an impatient President Bush announced a "surge" of 30,000 U.S. troops into the country, by then wracked by a bloody civil war. Compliant journalists accepted the story of a gamble by General David Petraeus to bring peace to warring Iraqis.

In fact, those troops spearheaded a strategy with rather less altruistic objectives: first, broker a new political deal among U.S. allies, who were the most sectarian and corrupt of Iraq's politicians (hence, with the irony characteristic of American foreign policy, regularly described as "moderates"); second, pressure them to deliver on political objectives set in Washington and known as "benchmarks" -- of which passing the oil law was the only one ever really talked about: in President Bush's biweekly video conferences with Maliki, in almost daily meetings of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, and in frequent visits by senior administration officials.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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