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So Iraq Was About the Oil

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When Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson publicly decried the Bush administration's bungling of U.S. foreign policy, the focus of the press coverage was on Wilkerson's depiction of a "cabal" headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that had hijacked the decision-making process.

Largely overlooked were Wilkerson's frank admissions about the importance of oil in justifying a long-term U.S. military intervention in Iraq. "The other thing that no one ever likes to talk about is SUVs and oil and consumption," the retired Army colonel said in a speech on Oct. 19.

While bemoaning the administration's incompetence in implementing the war strategy, Wilkerson said the U.S. government now had no choice but to succeed in Iraq or face the necessity of conquering the Middle East within the next 10 years to ensure access to the region's oil supplies.

"We had a discussion in (the State Department's Office of) Policy Planning about actually mounting an operation to take the oilfields of the Middle East, internationalize them, put them under some sort of U.N. trusteeship and administer the revenues and the oil accordingly," Wilkerson said. "That's how serious we thought about it."

The centrality of Iraq's oil in Wilkerson's blunt comments contrasted with three years of assurances from the Bush administration that the war had almost nothing to do with oil.

When critics have called the Iraq War a case of "blood for oil," George W. Bush's defenders have dismissed them as "conspiracy theorists." The Bush defenders insisted the president went to war out of concern about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaeda, neither of which turned out to be true. Later, Bush cited humanitarian concerns and the desire to spread democracy.

Always left out of the administration's war equation - or referenced only obliquely - was the fact that Iraq sits atop one of the world's largest known oil reserves at a time when international competition is intensifying to secure reliable oil supplies.

O'Neill's Revelations
But Wilkerson is not the first senior Bush administration official to cite the importance of oil in the U.S. calculus toward Iraq. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill made similar assertions in 2004.

O'Neill, who was fired in late 2002 after disagreeing with Bush on tax cuts and Iraq, told author Ron Suskind that Bush's first National Security Council meeting just days into his presidency included a discussion of invading Iraq. O'Neill said even at that early date, the message from Bush was "find a way to do this."

Oil and Iraq were soon mixing in the administration's thinking about energy and politics.

On Feb. 3, 2001 - only two weeks after Bush took office - an NSC document instructed NSC officials to cooperate with Cheney's Energy Task Force because it was "melding" two previously unrelated areas of policy: "the review of operational policies towards rogue states" and "actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields."

Before this disclosure, which appeared in The New Yorker three years later, it was believed that Cheney's secretive task force was focusing on ways to reduce environmental regulations and fend off the Kyoto protocol on global warming.

But the NSC document suggested that the Bush administration from its first days recognized the linkage between ousting unreliable leaders like Saddam Hussein and securing oil reserves for future U.S. consumption. In other words, the Cheney task force appears to have had a military component to "capture" oil fields in "rogue states." [For more on the NSC document, see The New Yorker, Feb. 16, 2004.]

After al-Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush had the political opening he needed to turn his designs on Iraq into reality. Though there was no credible evidence connecting Hussein to al-Qaeda and Sept. 11, Bush and Cheney made the linkage anyway.

Active preparations for war with Iraq were soon underway. Behind the scenes, O'Neill said he watched as the administration refined its plans for how to divvy up Iraq's oil reserves after the invasion.

"Documents were being prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld's intelligence arm, mapping Iraq's oil fields and exploration areas and listing companies that might be interested in leveraging the precious asset," Suskind wrote in The Price of Loyalty.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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