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Iraq: Is Oil A Factor In The War? - 2003-04-17

The Bush Administration has said the war in Iraq has nothing to do with oil. But its critics claim otherwise. A Worldwatch Institute researcher says, historically, oil has played a frequent role in politics and war.

With numerous former oil executives in the Bush administration, critics have said the US policy is clear – get control of Iraq’s oil. President Bush and others deny that’s their goal; they say it’s the liberation of Iraq and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

Worldwatch researcher Michael Renner says maybe the truth lies somewhere in between - especially since US dependence on foreign oil has increased.

He says, "Clearly the Middle East is the major oil region worldwide. And given rising US import dependence, rapidly rising import dependence, this is something that clearly has to be on the mind of anybody who is in a decision-making position. We have seen import dependence rise from less than half to about half (of imports) about ten years ago to more than half now – coming close to two-thirds or so. So, all the trends are really in the direction of we are going to rely more and more on imported oil."

He says any US policy in the Mid-East - including close ties with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the invasion of Iraq – “has to be seen against that background.”

He says Britain probably had oil in mind when it laid out the boundaries for modern Iraq in the early 1900’s.

Mr. Renner says, "Ever since the beginning of the oil age, and particularly when oil deposits were discovered in the Middle East, this has really contributed to a growing competition or rivalry among, in the first place, various European countries, which of course were the key powers at the time early in the 20th Century. Britain certainly played a very major role in this regard and took great care in the shaping of what is modern day Iraq."

Mr. Renner says over the years oil has become a common currency between countries, whether democratic or dictatorial.

He says, "In many, many oil producing countries the political system that’s in place, it would be hard to describe it as a democracy. Including many governments that the US government is very friendly with. I mean anything from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to – for many, many years – Indonesia of course was a dictatorship. And there was really no problem with having relationships with these countries, with these governments."

The Worldwatch researcher says the war in Iraq renewed old rivalries for the country’s oil. He says, “When the Iraqi government nationalized oil in 1972, it meant that…the key producers of Iraqi oil up to that point – including American, British and French companies – in effect lost control over the oil there.” Nevertheless, Mr. Renner says, France continued to pursue its interests, “managing to cultivate fairly good relations with the Iraqi government.”

He says, "Once sanctions were put in effect in the 1990’s, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, both France and Russia, along with some others, some Chinese companies, were trying very hard to, in effect, maneuver to make sure that once sanctions were falling by the wayside, were going to be lifted, that they would be able to come in and continue exploring and producing oil. This was a situation, however, where American and British companies were really left out in the cold. So, the question really was: were sanctions going to be lifted? And if so, that would primarily have benefited French, Russian and Chinese companies. Or would we have regime change, which of course is what we have now. And that would in effect really reshuffle the cards. It would really reopen the whole issue and give US and British companies a much, much bigger shot at Iraqi oil."

Critics of the Bush Administration include former South African President Nelson Mandela, who said, "All Mr. Bush wants is Iraqi oil…he wants to get hold of it.” Before the war, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “The oilfields are the property of the Iraqi people…and coalition forces would want to protect those fields and make sure they are used to benefit the people of Iraq.”