At any rate, the USA refrained from occupying Iraq when it easily could have, in 1991. Why the current American Administration's determination to conquer the desert country and subject it to direct rule, at least initially?
There is another explanation, insist keen-eyed analysts.
September 11 shredded the American sense of invulnerability. That the hijackers were all citizens of ostensible allies - such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia - exposed the tenuous and ephemeral status of US forces in the Gulf. So, is the war about transporting American military presence from increasingly hostile Saudis to soon-to-be subjugated Iraqis?
But this is a tautology. If America's reliance on Middle Eastern oil is non-existent - why would it want to risk lives and squander resources in the region at all? Why would it drive up the price of oil it consumes with its belligerent talk and coalition-building? Why would it fritter away the unprecedented upswell of goodwill that followed the atrocities in September 2001?
Back to oil. According to British Petroleum's Statistical Review of World Energy 2002, the United States voraciously - and wastefully - consumes one of every four barrels extracted worldwide. It imports about three fifths of its needs. In less than eleven years' time, its reserves depleted, it will be forced to import all of its soaring requirements.
Middle Eastern oil accounts for one quarter of America's imports. Iraqi crude for less than one tenth. A back of the envelope calculation reveals that Iraq quenches less than 6 percent of America's Black Gold cravings. Compared to Canada (15 percent of American oil imports), or Mexico (12 percent) - Iraq is a negligible supplier. Furthermore, the current oil production of the USA is merely 23 percent of its 1985 peak - about 2.4 million barrels per day, a 50-years nadir.
During the first eleven months of 2002, the United States imported an average of 449,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) from Iraq. In January 2003, with Venezuela in disarray, approximately 1.2 million bbl/d of Iraqi oil went to the Americas (up from 910,000 bbl/d in December 2002 and 515,000 bbl/d in November).
It would seem that $250 billion - the costs hitherto of war and postbellum reconstruction - would be better spent on America's domestic oil industry. Securing the flow of Iraqi crude is simply too insignificant to warrant such an exertion.
Much is made of Iraq's known oil reserves, pegged by the Department of Energy at 112 billion barrels, or five times the United States' - not to mention its 110 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Even at 3 million barrels per day - said to be the realistically immediate target of the occupying forces and almost 20 percent above the current level - this subterranean stash stands to last for more than a century.
Add to that the proven reserves of its neighbors - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates - and there is no question that the oil industry of these countries will far outlive their competitors'. Couldn't this be what the rapacious Americans are after? - wonder genteel French and Russian oilmen. After all, British and American companies controlled three quarters of Iraq's mineral wealth until 1972 when nationalization denuded them.
Alas, this "explanation" equally deflates upon closer inspection. Known - or imagined - reserves require investments in exploration, development and drilling. Nine tenths of Iraq's soil are unexplored, including up to 100 billion barrels of deep oil-bearing formations located mainly in the vast Western Desert. Of the 73 fields discovered - only 15 have been developed. Iraq's Oil Minister, Amir Rashid, admitted in early 2002 that only 24 Iraqi oil fields were producing.
The country has almost no deep wells, preponderant in Iran, for instance. Though the cost of production is around $1-1.5 per barrel, one tenth the cost elsewhere - while Texas boasts 1,000,000 drilled wells, Iraq barely sports 2000. The Department of Energy's report about Iraq concludes:
"Iraq generally has not had access to the latest, state-of-the-art oil industry technology (i.e., 3D seismic), sufficient spare parts, and investment in general throughout most of the 1990s, but has instead reportedly been utilizing questionable engineering techniques (i.e., overpumping, water injection/"flooding") and old technology to maintain production."
The quality of Iraqi oil deteriorated considerably in the recent decade. Its average API gravity declined by more than 10 percent, its water cut (intrusion of water into oil reservoirs) increased and its sulfur content shot up by one third. The fields date back to the 1920s and 1930s and were subjected to abusive methods of extraction. Thus, if torched during a Gotterdammerung - they may well be abandoned altogether.
According to a report published by the United Nations in 2001, Iraqi oil production is poised to fall off a cliff unless billions are invested in addressing technical and infrastructural problems. Even destitute Iraq forks out $1.2 billion annually on repairing oil facilities.