Wednesday, 8 June 2011
What does a 21st century resource war look like?
Mike Phipps spoke to Greg Muttitt about his new book, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, published by The Bodley Head, price £14.99 pbk.
LB: Why did you write this book?
GM: In early 2003, Tony Blair said the idea that the Iraq war was about oil was “absurd”. Yet government papers I obtained from the same time said: “The future shape of the Iraqi oil industry will affect the functioning of oil markets and OPEC in which we have a vital interest.” Other documents I’m releasing with the book show that Britain, far from being a moderating influence on the US, during certain periods actually pushed harder for oil privatisation.
My aim was to look at what a modern resources war might look like – all the more relevant in the context of the current intervention in Libya. In the early 2000s, the widening gap between demand and supply was driving up the price of oil. To expand supply, Western powers found it necessary to increase investment in the world’s mega-oil reserves, which are mostly in the Middle East, and Iraq was the easiest place to do this. This aim was actually much more important than simply getting contracts for their own oil companies.
One interesting feature of the war was how language was used to shape people’s perceptions. The resistance was called an “insurgency” – essentially delegitimising that resistance while legitimising the Occupation-appointed government. Iraqi fighters in Fallujah were even called “anti-Iraqi forces” by US marines. Likewise, Western officials who wrote and shaped Iraqi oil policies were innocuous-sounding “advisors” although their advice was backed up by 150,000 troops.
The Iraqis I met were a real source of hope. This became clear in the fight against the oil law, which was drafted in 2006 and designed to denationalise Iraq’s oil, while removing the legal requirement for parliamentary approval of major contracts. As information about the draft law leaked out, many Iraqis were outraged. By summer 2007, as the result of a grassroots campaign led by Iraq’s trade unions, a majority in the Iraqi parliament opposed the law. Think about the circumstances of this campaign – people were receiving death threats and getting killed, yet they were successful in stopping the world’s sole superpower, which occupied their country!
LB: Why do you think the Occupation sought to sectarianise Iraqi politics?
GM: There are three elements. Firstly, the occupiers had a strategic interest in dividing and ruling Iraqis. When the US attacked both Najaf and Fallujah at the same time in 2004, that had the effect of uniting Iraqis against the occupation – the US commanding general admitted publicly at that time that he wanted to prevent such unity spreading. Secondly, there was a kind of cheap racism, that was incapable of seeing Iraqis except as Sunnis or Shias. Thirdly, a lack of understanding – the Occupation needed some simple model to understand how Iraqi society worked, and sectarianism was what they came up with.
Iraqis reject this sectarian divide. Every Iraqi I know has a spouse, relative or friend from the other sect. From 2007 on, as US power in Iraq declined, the influence of sectarianism on Iraqi politics also declined.
LB: How has the invasion affected oil production?
GM: Oil production now is about what it was before the war began. It will increase: in 2009-10, contracts were awarded covering two-thirds of Iraq’s reserves. But these contracts are not as generous as the companies wanted. They wanted production-sharing agreements, but got only service contracts, without the extra windfall profits. More importantly, existing Iraqi law says that these contracts still require parliamentary approval, which the Iraqi government has refused to seek. So if they are not legal, a future government might be able to overturn them – and this makes the oil companies nervous.
LB: What light does Iraq shed on the current protests across the Arab world?
GM: From Iraq, we learn that when the West looks at the Middle East, it looks at it through the prism of oil, and in my book I’ve tried to trace how the oil interests played out during the course of the occupation.
We also learn something about democracy. We can see how over the last eight years the US and UK have sought to install a government that will serve their interests. These protests have also affected Iraq. Despite elections last year, most Iraqis don’t see their government as legitimate. It took eight months to form this government – a world record! Meanwhile most Iraqis get electricity for one to four hours a day and this makes life intolerable when temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees centigrade in the summer.
The reason for the dysfunctional and unrepresentative government is that it is led by former exiles who arrived with the Occupation. Most had no serious political base in Iraq, so they depend on outside forces – the USA, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc – for their power. Many are corrupt and have stuffed their ministries with party loyalists, friends and family who are simply not competent, so the government cannot provide services. Back in 2003, the Americans were saying outsiders would have to govern Iraq because Iraqis who’d lived under the dictatorship wouldn’t understand democracy. In reality, the outsiders would serve US interests, and be forever weak so they could be controlled.
So the lessons for the Arab protests and revolutions? First, don’t believe the West is motivated by democracy – there are always interests involved. And second, let the people shape their own governments without interference.