The Oil War


The Iraq war was about oil. Recently declassified US government documents confirm this (1), however much US president George W Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their ally, the British prime minister Tony Blair, denied it at the time.

When Bush moved into the White House in January 2001, he faced the familiar problem of the imbalance between oil supply and demand. Supply was unable to keep up with demand, which was increasing rapidly because of the growth of emerging economies such as China and India. The only possible solution lay in the Gulf, where the giant oil-producing countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, and the lesser producing states of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, commanded 60% of the world’s reserves.

For financial or political reasons, production growth was slow. In Saudi Arabia, the ultra-rich ruling families of the Al-Saud, the Al-Sabah and the Zayed Al-Nayan were content with a comfortable level of income, given their small populations, and preferred to leave their oil underground. Iran and Iraq hold around 25% of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves and could have filled the gap, but were subject to sanctions — imposed solely by the US on Iran, internationally on Iraq — that deprived them of essential oil equipment and services. Washington saw them as rogue states and was unwilling to end the sanctions.

How could the US get more oil from the Gulf without endangering its supremacy in the region? Influential US neoconservatives, led by Paul Wolfowitz, who had gone over to uninhibited imperialism after the fall of the Soviet Union, thought they had found a solution. They had never understood George Bush senior’s decision not to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war in 1991. An open letter to President Bill Clinton, inspired by the Statement of Principles of the Project for the New American Century, a non-profit organisation founded by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, had called for a regime change in Iraq as early as 1998: Saddam must be ousted and big US oil companies must gain access to Iraq. Several signatories to the Statement of Principles became members of the new Republican administration in 2001.

In 2002, one of them, Douglas Feith, a lawyer who was undersecretary of defense to Rumsfeld, supervised the work of experts planning the future of Iraq’s oil industry. His first decision was to entrust its management after the expected US victory to Kellog, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of US oil giant Halliburton, of which Cheney had been chairman and CEO. Feith’s plan, formulated at the start of 2003, was to keep Iraq’s oil production at its current level of 2,840 mbpd (million barrels per day), to avoid a collapse that would cause chaos in the world market.

Privatising oil

Experts were divided on the privatisation of the Iraqi oil industry. The Iraqi government had excluded foreign companies and successfully managed the sector itself since 1972. By 2003, despite wars with Iran (1980-88) and in Kuwait (1990-91) and more than 15 years of sanctions, Iraq had managed to equal the record production levels achieved in 1979-1980.

The experts had a choice — bring back the concession regime that had operated before nationalisation in 1972, or sell shares in the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) on the Russian model, issuing transferrable vouchers to the Iraqi population. In Russia, this approach had very quickly led to the oil sector falling into the hands of a few super-rich oligarchs.

Bush approved the plan drawn up by the Pentagon and State Department in January 2003. The much-decorated retired lieutenant general Jay Gardner, was appointed director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the military administration set up to govern post-Saddam Iraq. Out of his depth, he stuck to short-term measures and avoided choosing between the options put forward by his technical advisers.

Reassuring the oil giants

The international oil companies were not idle. Lee Raymond, CEO of America’s biggest oil company ExxonMobil, was an old friend of Dick Cheney. But where the politicians were daring, he was cautious. The project was a tempting opportunity to replenish the company’s reserves, which had been stagnant for several years, but Raymond had doubts: would Bush really be able to assure conditions that would allow the company to operate safely in Iraq? Nobody at ExxonMobil was willing to die for oil. (Its well-paid engineers do not dream of life in a blockhouse in Iraq.) The company would also have to be sure of its legal position: what would contracts signed by a de facto authority be worth when it would be investing billions of dollars that would take years to recover?

In the UK, BP was anxious to secure its own share of the spoils. As early as 2002 the company had confided in the UK Department of Trade and Industry its fears that the US might give away too much to French, Russian and Chinese oil companies in return for their governments agreeing not to use their veto at the UN Security Council (2). In February 2003 those fears were removed: France’s president Jacques Chirac vetoed a resolution put forward by the US, and the third Iraq war began without UN backing. There was no longer any question of respecting the agreements Saddam had signed with Total and other companies (which had never been put into practice because of sanctions).

To reassure the British and US oil giants, the US government appointed to the management team Gary Vogler of ExxonMobil and Philip J Carrol of Shell. They were replaced in October 2003 by Rob McKee of ConocoPhilips and Terry Adams of BP. The idea was to counter the dominance of the Pentagon, and the influential neocon approach (which faced opposition from within the administration). The neocon ideologues, still on the scene, had bizarre ideas: they wanted to build a pipeline to transport Iraq’s crude oil to Israel, dismantle OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and even use “liberated” Iraq as a guinea pig for a new oil business model to be applied to all of the Middle East. The engineers and businessmen, whose priorities were profits and results, were more down-to-earth.

In any event, the invasion had a devastating impact on Iraq’s oil production, less because of the bombing by the US air force than because of the widespread looting of government agencies, schools, universities, archives, libraries, banks, hospitals, museums and state-owned enterprises. Drilling rigs were dismantled for the copper parts they were believed to contain. The looting continued from March to May 2003. Only a third of the damage to the oil industry was caused during the invasion; the rest happened after the fighting was over, despite the presence of the RIO Task Force and the US Corps of Engineers with its 500 contractors, specially prepared and trained to protect oil installations. Saddam’s supporters were prevented from blowing up the oil wells by the speed of the invasion, but the saboteurs set to work in June 2003.

Iraq’s one real asset

The only buildings protected were the gigantic oil ministry, where 15,000 civil servants managed 22 subsidiaries of the Iraq National Oil Company. The State Oil Marketing Organisation and the infrastructure were abandoned. The occupiers regarded the oil under the ground as Iraq’s one real asset. They were not interested in installations or personnel. The oil ministry was only saved at the last minute because it housed geological and seismic data on Iraq’s 80 known deposits, estimated to contain 115bn barrels of crude oil. The rest could always be replaced with more modern US-made equipment and the knowhow of the international oil companies, made indispensible by the sabotage.

Thamir Abbas Ghadban, director-general of planning at the oil ministry, turned up at the office three days after the invasion was over, and, in the absence of a minister for oil (since Iraq had no government), was appointed second in command under Micheal Mobbs, a neocon who enjoyed the confidence of the Pentagon. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul who headed Iraq’s provisional government from May 2003 to June 2004, presided over the worst 12 months in the oil sector in 70 years. Production fell by 1 mbpd — more than $13bn of lost income.

The oil installations, watched over by 3,500 underequipped guards, suffered 140 sabotage attacks between May 2003 and September 2004, estimated to have caused $7bn of damage. “There was widespread looting,” said Ghadban. “Equipment was stolen and in most cases the buildings were set on fire.” The Daura refinery, near Baghdad, only received oil intermittently, because of damage to the pipeline network. “We had to let all the oil in the damaged sections of the pipeline burn before we could repair them.” Yet the refinery continued to operate, no mean achievement considering that the workers were no longer being paid.

The senior management of the national oil company also suffered. Until 1952 almost all senior managers of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) were foreigners, who occupied villas in gated and guarded compounds while the local workforce lived in shantytowns. In 1952 tension between Iraq and Muhammad Mossadegh’s Iran led the IPC to review its relations with Baghdad, and a clause of the new treaty concerned the training of Iraqi managers. By 1972, 75% of the thousand skilled jobs were filled by Iraqis, which helped to ensure the success of the IPC’s nationalisation. The new Iraq National Oil Company gained control of the oilfields and production reached unprecedented levels.

Purge of the Ba’ath

After the invasion, the US purged Ba’athist elements from INOC’s management. Simply belonging to the Ba’ath, Iraq’s single political party, which had been in power since 1968, was grounds for dismissal, compulsory retirement or worse. Seventeen of INOC’s 24 directors were forced out, along with several hundred engineers, who had kept production high through wars and foreign sanctions. The founding fathers of INOC were ousted by the Deba’athification Commission, led by former exiles including Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, who replaced them with his own supporters, as incompetent as they were partisan.

Rob McKee, who succeeded Philip J Carrol as oil adviser to the US proconsul, observed in autumn 2003: “The people themselves are patently unqualified and are apparently being placed in the ministry for religious, political or personal reasons… the people who nursed the industry through Saddam’s years and who brought it back to life after the liberation, as well as many trained professionals, are all systematically being pushed to the sidelines” (3).

This purge opened the door to advisers, mostly from the US, who bombarded the oil ministry with notes, circulars and reports directly inspired by the practices of the international oil industry, without much concern for their applicability to Iraq.

The drafting of Iraq’s new constitution and an oil law provided an opportunity to change the rules. Washington had decided in advance to do away with the centralised state, partly because of its crimes against the Kurds under Saddam and partly because centralisation favours totalitarianism. The new federal, or even confederal, regime was decentralised to the point of being de-structured. A two-thirds majority in one of the three provinces allows opposition to veto central government decisions.

Baghdad-Irbil rivalry

Only Kurdistan had the means and the motivation to do so. Where oil was concerned, power was effectively divided between Baghdad and Irbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which imposed its own interpretation of the constitution: deposits already being exploited would remain under federal government control, but new licenses would be granted by the provincial governments. A fierce dispute arose between the two capitals, partly because the KRG granted licenses to foreign oil companies under far more favourable conditions than those offered by Baghdad.

The quarrel related to the production sharing agreements. The usual practice is for foreign companies that provide financial backing to get a share of the oil produced, which can be very significant in the first few years. This was the formula US politicians and oil companies wanted to impose. They were unable to do so.

Iraq’s parliament, so often criticised in other matters, opposed this system; it was supported by public opinion, which had not forgotten the former IPC. Tariq Shafiq, founding father of the INOC, explained to the US Congress the technical reasons for the refusal (4). Iraq’s oil deposits were known and mapped out. There was therefore little risk to foreign companies: there would be no prospecting costs and exploitation costs would be among the lowest in the world. From 2008 onwards, Baghdad started offering major oil companies far less attractive contracts — $2/barrel for the bigger oilfields, and no rights to the deposits.

ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Total, and Russian, Chinese, Angolan, Pakistani and Turkish oil companies nevertheless rushed to accept, hoping that things would turn to their advantage. Newsweek (24 May 2010) claimed Iraq had the potential to become “the next Saudi Arabia.” But although production is up (over 3 mbpd in 2012), the oil companies are irritated by the conditions imposed on them: investment costs are high, profits are mediocre and the oil still underground is not counted as part of their reserves, which affects their share price.

ExxonMobil and Total disregarded the federal government edict that threatened to strip rights from oil companies that signed production-sharing agreements relating to oilfields in Kurdistan. Worse, ExxonMobil sold its services contract relating to Iraq’s largest oilfield, West Qurna, where it had been due to invest $50bn and double the country’s current production. Baghdad is now under pressure: if it continues to refuse the conditions requested by the foreign oil companies, it will lose out to Irbil, even if Kurdistan’s deposits are only a third of the size of those in the south. Meanwhile, Turkey has done nothing to improve its relations with Iraq by offering to build a direct pipeline from Kurdistan to the Mediterranean. Without the war, would the oil companies have been able to make the Iraqis and Kurds compete? One thing is certain: the US is far from achieving its goals in the oil sector, and in this sense the war was a failure.

Alan Greenspan, who as chairman of the US Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006 was well placed to understand the importance of oil, came up with the best summary of the conflict: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil” (5).

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