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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 23-24   16 April -15 May 2011

Oil and the US-led Invasion of Iraq: The Untold Story

Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq

By Paul Bignell

Plans to exploit Iraq's oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world's largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.

The papers, revealed here for the first time, raise new questions over Britain's involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair's cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as "highly inaccurate". BP denied that it had any "strategic interest" in Iraq, while Tony Blair described "the oil conspiracy theory" as "the most absurd".

But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.

Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq's enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair's military commitment to US plans for regime change.

The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP's behalf because the oil giant feared it was being "locked out" of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: "Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis."

The minister then promised to "report back to the companies before Christmas" on her lobbying efforts.

The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq "post regime change". Its minutes state: "Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity."

After another meeting, this one in October 2002, the Foreign Office's Middle East director at the time, Edward Chaplin, noted: "Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future... We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq."

Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had "no strategic interest" in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was "more important than anything we've seen for a long time".

BP was concerned that if Washington allowed TotalFinaElf's existing contact with Saddam Hussein to stand after the invasion it would make the French conglomerate the world's leading oil company. BP told the Government it was willing to take "big risks" to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.

Over 1,000 documents were obtained under Freedom of Information over five years by the oil campaigner Greg Muttitt. They reveal that at least five meetings were held between civil servants, ministers and BP and Shell in late 2002.

The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry. They covered half of Iraq's reserves 60 billion barrels of oil, bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make 403m ($658m) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.

Last week, Iraq raised its oil output to the highest level for almost decade, 2.7 million barrels a day seen as especially important at the moment given the regional volatility and loss of Libyan output. Many opponents of the war suspected that one of Washington's main ambitions in invading Iraq was to secure a cheap and plentiful source of oil.

Mr Muttitt, whose book Fuel on the Fire is published next week, said: "Before the war, the Government went to great lengths to insist it had no interest in Iraq's oil. These documents provide the evidence that give the lie to those claims.

"We see that oil was in fact one of the Government's most important strategic considerations, and it secretly colluded with oil companies to give them access to that huge prize."

Lady Symons, 59, later took up an advisory post with a UK merchant bank that cashed in on post-war Iraq reconstruction contracts. Last month she severed links as an unpaid adviser to Libya's National Economic Development Board after Colonel Gaddafi started firing on protesters. Last night, BP and Shell declined to comment.

They denied it was about Iraq's resources. But it never rang true

By Patrick Cockburn

The supposed disinterest expressed by international oil companies in the outcome of the invasion of Iraq in the year before it was launched never quite made sense. Iraqis used to ask ironically if the rest of the world would have been quite so interested in the fate of their country if its main export had been cabbages.

Oil companies are intensely interested in what happens in Iraq because it contains some of the world's largest unexploited and under-exploited oilfields. This includes nine "super giants" around Basra each with 5 billion barrels of exploitable crude.

In 2002 many British companies were suspicious that they might be locked out by US oil companies in the event of the US becoming the dominant power in Iraq. This was not a paranoid suspicion; early non-oil contracts awarded by the US-dominated administration in Baghdad in 2003 went to American corporations.

In the event Iraq has held three rounds of bidding for contracts to manage and develop Iraqi oilfields since 2008. BP along with China's CNPC is heavily involved in Iraq's largest oilfield, Rumaila, in the far south on the Kuwaiti border. Royal Dutch Shell with Petronas of Malaysia has the contract for the Majnoon field on the border with Iran. Exxonmobil and Royal Dutch Shell are developing West Qurna 1.

It has never seemed likely that the US and Britain invaded Iraq primarily for its oil. Reasserting US self-confidence as a super-power after 9/11 was surely a greater motive. The UK went along with this in order to remain America's chief ally. Both President Bush and Tony Blair thought the war would be easy.

But would they have gone to war if Iraq had been producing cabbages? Probably not.

Black gold rush was fuelled by enormous untapped potential

By Alistair Dawber

The Foreign Office was not wrong in its November 2002 memo: "Iraq is the big oil prospect." But it should have come as no surprise to those in Whitehall that BP, and other oil companies, were "desperate" to get a slice of the pie that was seemingly already being carved up five months before the invasion.

Conservative estimates put about 115 billion barrels of oil beneath the Iraqi desert, ranking the country fourth in the global league table behind Saudi Arabia, Canada and Iran. But even that staggering number does little to explain just how much oil Iraq might be sitting on.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, the 115 billion barrel figure is a best guess based largely on unsophisticated 2-D seismic data, most of which dates back nearly 30 years. Geologists believe the real figure could be 45 to 100 billion barrels higher.

Because of the limits on exports during the Saddam era, and its consequential tardy approach to development, much of the untapped oil may be brought online with only limited investment. And yet the development of the post-war oil industry in Iraq has been embarrassingly moribund.

Insurgency and conflict, as well as a poor perception of the global industry within Iraq, has acted as a brake on production, limiting output to less than 3 million barrels a day by the end of last year: the country has produced between 2.4 and 2.6 million barrels since the 2003 invasion a tepid performance, making Iraq only the world's 10th biggest oil producer.

BP penned a memorandum of understanding in 2005 to provide technical assistance at the huge Rumalia field in southern Iraq, in which it now holds a 39 per cent stake. Within five years BP is hoping to triple output to 2.85 million barrels per day, accounting for 3 per cent of global annual output.

It is not just BP that is beginning to reap the benefits of the overthrow of Saddam. The group's partners at Rumalia include CNPC, the state-owned Chinese group, and an Iraqi oil company.

Elsewhere, the list of oil companies that now have interests in Iraq reads like a who's who of the world's biggest resources groups.

Total, the French giant that BP professed so much concern about in November 2002, holds a stake in the Halfaya field, which holds a mere 4.1 billion barrels at the best estimate. Other international "majors" from Brazil, Norway, Kazakhstan and a host of other countries also have the rights to vast pools of Iraqi oil.

That the war in Iraq was motivated by oil has been supported by those against the invasion, and denied by all the protagonists, despite some rather sketchy retrospective justifications. What is undoubtedly true is the benefit to the world's biggest oil companies is likely to be profound.

(Source: The Independent, 19 April 2011)

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