Iraq country’s oil reserves should be developed to benefit them, not foreign energy firms.

Iraq recently reclaimed the number two position in the OPEC, overtaking oil-sanctioned Iran [EPA]
In 2011, after nearly nine years of war and occupation, US troops finally left Iraq. In their place, Big Oil is now present in force and the country’s oil output, crippled for decades, is growing again. Iraq recently reclaimed the number two position in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), overtaking oil-sanctioned Iran. Now, there’s talk of a new world petroleum glut. So is this finally mission accomplished?

Well, not exactly. In fact, any oil company victory in Iraq is likely to prove as temporary as George W Bush’s triumph in 2003. The main reason is yet another of those stories the mainstream media didn’t quite find room for: the role of Iraqi civil society. But before telling that story, let’s look at what’s happening to Iraqi oil today, and how we got from the “no blood for oil” global protests of 2003 to the present moment.

Here, as a start, is a little scorecard of what’s gone on in Iraq since Big Oil arrived two and a half years ago:corruption’s skyrocketed; two Western oil companies are being investigated for either giving or receiving bribes; the Iraqi government is paying oil companies a per-barrel fee according to wildly unrealistic production targets they’ve set, whether or not they deliver that number of barrels; contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab.

Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and equipment smashed, leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.

In Kurdistan in the north, the regional government awards contracts on land outside its jurisdiction, contracts which permit the government to transfer its stake in the oil projects – up to 25 per cent – to private companies of its choice. Fuel is smuggled across the border to the tune of hundreds of tankers a day.

In Kurdistan, at least the approach is deliberate: the two ruling families of the region, the Barzanis and Talabanis, know that they can do whatever they like, since their Peshmerga militia control the territory. In contrast, the Iraqi federal government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has little control over anything. As a result, in the rest of the country the oil industry operates, gold-rush-style, in an almost complete absence of oversight or regulation.

In July 2003, the US occupation established the Iraqi Governing Council, a quasi-governmental body led by friendly Iraqi exiles who had been out of the country for the previous few decades. They would be housed in an area of Baghdad isolated from the Iraqi population by concrete blast walls and machine gun towers, and dubbed the Green Zone.  There, the politicians would feast, oblivious to and unconcerned with the suffering of the rest of the population.

The first post-invasion Oil Minister was Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a man who held the country’s homegrown oil expertise in open contempt. He quickly set about sacking the technicians and managers who had built the industry following nationalisation in the 1970s and had kept it running through wars and sanctions. He replaced them with friends and fellow party members. One typical replacement was a former pizza chef.

The resulting damage to the oil industry exceeded anything caused by missiles and tanks. As a result the country found itself – as Washington had hoped – dependent on the expertise of foreign companies. Meanwhile, not only did the Coalition Provisional authority (CPA) that oversaw the occupation lose $6.6bn of Iraqi money, it effectively suggested corruption wasn’t something to worry about. A December 2003 CPA policy document recommended that Iraq follow the lead of Azerbaijan, where the government had attracted oil multinationals despite an atmosphere of staggering corruption (“less attractive governance”) simply by offering highly profitable deals.

Now, so many years later, the corruption is all-pervasive and the multinationals continue to operate without oversight, since the country’s ministry is run by the equivalent of pizza chefs.

The first permanent government was formed under Prime Minister Maliki in May 2006. In the preceding months, the American and British governments made sure the candidates for prime minister knew what their first priority had to be: to pass a law legalising the return of the foreign multinationals – tossed out of the country in the 1970s – to run the oil sector.

The law was drafted within weeks, dutifully shown to US officials within days, and to oil multinationals not long after. Members of the Iraqi parliament, however, had to wait seven months to see the text.

Oil companies differ as to which of these two Iraqs they prefer to operate in. BP and Shell have opted to rush for black gold in the super-giant oilfields of southern Iraq. Exxon has hedged its bets by investing in both options. This summer, Chevronand the French oil company Total voted for the Kurdish approach, trading smaller oil fields for better terms and a bit more stability.

Keep in mind that the incapacity of the Iraqi government is hardly limited to the oil business: stagnation hangs over its every institution. Iraqis still have an average of just five hours of electricity a day, which in 130-degree heat causes tempers to boil over regularly. The country’s two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, which watered the cradle of civilisation 5,000 years ago, are drying up. This is largely due to the inability of the government to engage in effective regional diplomacy that would control upstream dam-building by Turkey.

After elections in 2010, the country’s leading politicians couldn’t even agree on how to form a government until the Iraqi Supreme Court forced them to. This record of haplessness, along with rampant corruption, significant repression, and a revival of sectarianism can all be traced back to American decisions in the occupation years. Tragically, these persistent ills have manifested themselves in a recent spate of car-bombings and other bloody attacks.

Washington’s yen for oil

In the period before and around the invasion, the Bush administration barely mentioned Iraqi oil, describing it reverently only as that country’s “patrimony”. As for the reasons for war, the administration insisted that it had barely noticed Iraq had one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves. But my new book reveals documents I received, marked SECRET/NOFORN, that laid out for the first time pre-war oil plans hatched in the Pentagon by arch-neoconservative Douglas Feith’s Energy Infrastructure Planning Group (EIPG).

In November 2002, four months before the invasion, that planning group came up with a novel idea: it proposed that any American occupation authority not repair war damage to the country’s oil infrastructure, as doing so “could discourage private sector involvement”. In other words, it suggested that the landscape should be cleared of Iraq’s homegrown oil industry to make room for Big Oil.

When the administration worried that this might disrupt oil markets, EIPG came up with a new strategy under which initial repairs would be carried out by KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. Long-term contracts with multinational companies, awarded by the US occupation authority, would follow. International law notwithstanding, the EIPG documents noted cheerily that such an approach would put “long-term downward pressure on [the oil] price” and force “questions about Iraq’s future relations with OPEC”.

At the same time, the Pentagon planning group recommended that Washington state that its policy was “not to prejudice Iraq’s future decisions regarding its oil development policies”. Here, in writing, was the approach adopted in the years to come by the Bush administration and the occupation authorities: lie to the public while secretly planning to hand Iraq over to Big Oil.

There turned out, however, to be a small kink in the plan: the oil companies declined the American-awarded contracts, fearing that they would not stand up in international courts and so prove illegitimate. They wanted Iraq first to have an elected permanent government that would arrive at the same results. The question then became how to get the required results with the Iraqis nominally in charge. The answer: install a friendly government and destroy the Iraqi oil industry.

How temporary the victory of Big Oil?

The trouble was: getting it through that parliament proved far more difficult than Washington or its officials in Iraq had anticipated. In January 2007, an impatient President Bush announced a “surge” of 30,000 US troops into the country, by then wracked by a bloody civil war. Compliant journalists accepted the story of a gamble by General David Petraeus to bring peace to warring Iraqis.

In fact, those troops spearheaded a strategy with rather less altruistic objectives: first, broker a new political dealamong US allies, who were the most sectarian and corrupt of Iraq’s politicians (hence, with the irony characteristic of American foreign policy, regularly described as “moderates”); second, pressure them to deliver on political objectives set in Washington and known as “benchmarks” – of which passing the oil law was the only one ever really talked about: in President Bush’s biweekly video conferences with Maliki, in almost daily meetings of the US ambassador in Baghdad, and in frequent visits by senior administration officials.

On this issue, the Democrats, by then increasingly against the Iraq War but still pro-Big Oil, lent a helping hand to a Republican administration. Having failed to end the war, the newly Democrat-controlled Congress passed anappropriations bill that would cut off reconstruction funds to Iraq if the oil law weren’t passed. Generals warned that without an oil law, Prime Minister Maliki would lose their support, which he knew wellwould mean losing his job. And to ramp up the pressure further, the US set a deadline of September 2007 to pass the law or face the consequences.

It was then that things started going really wrong for Bush and company. In December 2006, I was at a meeting where leaders of Iraq’s trade unions decided to fight the oil law. One of them summed up the general sentiment this way: “We do not need thieves to take us back to the middle ages”. So they began organising. They printed pamphlets, held public meetings and conferences, staged protests and watched support for their movement grow.

Most Iraqis feel strongly that the country’s oil reserves belong in the public sector, to be developed to benefit them, not foreign energy companies. And so word spread fast – and with it, popular anger. Iraq’s oil professionals and various civil society groups denounced the law. Preachers railed against it in Friday sermons. Demonstrations were held in Baghdad and elsewhere, and as Washington ratcheted up the pressure, members of the Iraqi parliament started to see political opportunity in aligning themselves with this ever more popular cause. Even some US allies in Parliament confided in diplomats at the American embassy that it would be political suicide to vote for the law.

By the September deadline, a majority of the parliament was against the law and – a remarkable victory for the trade unions – it was not passed. It’s still not passed today.

Given the political capital the Bush administration had invested in the passage of the oil law, its failure offered Iraqis a glimpse of the limits of US power, and from that moment on, Washington’s influence began to wane.

Things changed again in 2009 when the Maliki government, eager for oil revenues, began awarding contracts to them even without an oil law in place. As a result, however, the victory of Big Oil is likely to be a temporary one: the present contracts are illegal, and so they will last only as long as there’s a government in Baghdad that supports them.

This helps explain why the government’s repression of trade unions increased once the contracts were signed.  Now, Iraq is showing signs of a more general return to authoritarianism (as well as internecine violence and possibly renewed sectarian conflict).

But there is another possibility for Iraq. Years before the Arab Spring, I saw what Iraqi civil society can achieve by organising: it stopped the world’s superpower from reaching its main objective and steered Iraq onto a more positive course.

Many times since 2003 Iraqis have moved their country in a more democratic direction: establishing trade unions in that year, building Shia-Sunni connections in 2004, promoting anti-sectarian politicians in 2007 and 2008 and voting for them in 2009. Sadly, each of these times Washington has pushed it back toward sectarianism, the atmosphere in which its allies thrive. While mainstream commentators now regularly blame the recent escalation of violence on the departure of US troops, it would be more accurate to say that the real reason is they didn’t leave far sooner.

Now, without its troops and bases, much of Washington’s political heft has vanished. Whether Iraq heads in the direction of dictatorship, sectarianism or democracy remains to be seen, but if Iraqis again start to build a more democratic future, the US will no longer be there to obstruct it. Meanwhile, if a new politics does emerge, Big Oil may discover that, in the end, it was mission unaccomplished.


As their humanitarian plight grows more acute, the Syrian people deserve better from the Democratic Party and its elected leadership.

If Senator Edward M. Kennedy — the conscience of the Democratic Party — were alive today, he would be bellowing to the rafters on the floor of the U.S. Senate that America is acting embarrassingly indifferent to the humanitarian plight of the Syrian people.

I have experience enough to predict how Ted Kennedy would have reacted to the growing Syrian civilian humanitarian crisis. I served on his Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees staff for 7 years and know Ted Kennedy cared about the Democratic Party and its foreign policy principles.

The Syrian people wouldn’t know of these Democratic principles. Nor, for that matter, would the millions of young Arabs that President Obama addressed in Cairo in June, 2009, since they are not reflected in his Syrian policy. That is one reason why his support among Arabs has cratered.

Something has happened to us Democrats insofar as Syria is concerned.

Instead of leadership, the Obama Administration has served up a platter of empty promises and alibis. Instead of actively and expeditiously organizing a coalition of relief organizations to find the best ways to redress the terrible conditions confronting a Syrian population fleeing for their lives from the homes, White House policy on Syria is plain and simple: don’t rock the boat, don’t go near any policy that would draw the U.S. into any remote chance that a shot would be fired in our direction. Use the turmoil inside Syria as a justification not to act. Time does not seem to be the essence as the death toll and suffering mounts.

Evidently, providing much needed American leadership to alleviate the plight of Syrians could cost the president one vote, or so Chicago Obama campaign headquarters fears.

It is so ironic that nary an expression of serious angst emanates from Washington’s Democratic think tanks on Syria calling on the Obama Administration to live up to the Party’s best humanitarian principles.

When Libya’s Gadaffi was merely threatening, I repeat, threatening, to bring harm to Benghazi’s civilians, the outcry from the Obama Administration and its allies was deafening. Washington then couldn’t do enough to avert the danger to Benghazi’s civilians. The lack of any comparable drumbeat out of Democratic Congressional offices or our allies in the think tank world on Syria would suggest they were quietly “advised” by the White House to avoid placing the Administration in a politically difficult position. Syria, after all is not Libya, or so the White House has convinced itself of.

And if there has been a recent Senate hearing on Syria highlighting the humanitarian crisis and recommending a coherent, principled policy, it is a deep, dark secret.

Even when we offered to send “non-lethal” communications equipment it remained in storage for months, and the leadership of the Syrian opposition went public last week to the Washington Post on August 21, rebuking the Obama Administration for promising, but not delivering the offered assistance. Meanwhile, Administration spokesmen serve up assurances that the supply chain of non-lethal assistance is timely arriving at its intended destinations. This is inaccurate if the Syrian opposition and the U.S. media is to be believed.

The White House has also assured the media it is discreetly planning for a post-Assad Syria. The New York Times reported on August 5 that the State Department “… is considering positioning additional food and medical supplies in the region…” to cope with a POST ASSAD situation.

What if Assad doesn’t abandon Damascus anytime soon and the fighting and dying go on and on? Are we going to continue to sit conveniently on the sidelines waiting by the ticker to send a “breaking news” alert that Assad has been overthrown before we decisively act? That’s what it sounds like, and that was the inference conveyed to me by colleagues at the State Department last week.

That is patently unacceptable!

Today, the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Syria is growing more and more acute by the hour. Yet, Assad may be in power for one month, even five months, or, if the Russians and Iranians have their way, for a whole lot longer. Surely it cannot be that this White House will wait and wait and wait until Assad’s eventual fall triggers a muscular American humanitarian relief policy that should be in place and operational whether or not Assad stays or leaves.

By consensus accounts emerging every day from international observers, close to 25,000 Syrians have died, over 150,000 are missing or have been made refugees, and untold tens of thousands are homeless, without food or medicine at the mercy of Assad’s artillery or criminal elements. Turkey, no longer able to cope with the Syrian refugee exodus, shut down its border crossings, stranding thousands of fleeing Syrians inside Syria under barrage from Assad’s helicopter gunships. Jordan faces a similar challenge. What is to become of these Syrians holed up inside Syria without food, medicine or shelter? Are they to die from starvation or lack of water, or be gunned down by Assad’s forces?

This is the cruel Syrian reality today… not an over-exaggerated, naïve, idealistic plea. The Obama Administration can do so much more without resorting to yet another convenient excuse for inaction.

I do not and never have advocated boots on the ground. I know the stakes and the consequences. Rather, I am advocating for angels from the air.

Why cannot the Obama Administration get off its dime and show some valor by doing what is right and lead the international community into organizing a credible humanitarian land and air lift under the flag of the neutral United Nations or Muslim Red Crescent Society today before it is too late? What are the Russians or Syrians going to do in the face of a determined coalition expediting humanitarian relief supplies? Shoot down a Red Crescent or U.N.-sponsored airlift? If this relief operation requires armed escorts, well, then, show leadership and provide the logistical and communications support to the Saudis and Qataris to enable them to provide the necessary military support like they did in Libya. How many Americans died protecting the citizens of Benghazi when we provided the leadership and support without placing ourselves on the front firing lines?

Where there is a will there is a way!

History will not kindly judge the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment for turning its back on the plight of the Syrian people. Ever since the revolt against the Assad regime commenced in March, 2011, the abdication of Democratic Party humanitarian DNA toward Syria is Exhibit A for a foreign policy dictated by political expediency rather than determination and resolve.

This is an appropriate occasion to remind my colleagues in this good Administration that President Obama has a duty and responsibility to stand by and actively honor the foreign policy principles of our Democratic Party. We who served in previous Democratic campaigns and Democratic administrations were inspired by these humanitarian principles and they moved us to act in the Middle East, in South Asia, in Vietnam and in Bosnia. The upcoming Democratic Party Convention provides the President a platform to send a strong message to the Syrian people that the U.S. will not abandon them.

I know what Ted Kennedy would be doing today to help the Syrian people. He would be holding hearings in the U.S. Senate to highlight the growing humanitarian catastrophe confronting every Syrian civilian — Sunni, Shiite, Christian and any sect in between. His hearings would shine a spotlight on the need for greater humanitarian aid to Syrians and the extreme violations of human rights Syrian civilians face every hour of every day. He would have representatives of international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees testify so the world would hear the terrible refugee crisis that has emerged on Syria’s borders and come up with credible steps to avert a further crisis. He would have reporters and representatives of humanitarian relief organizations provide first-hand accounts of the Syrian humanitarian crisis to make sure the American people and the international community understood the true picture of what was occurring inside Syria.

Most of all, Ted Kennedy would be orchestrating an appropriate U.S. response to the Syrian crisis from the American people consistent with our limitations, but mindful of who we are and what we stand for.

Certainly, for all Edward Kennedy and his brothers stood for, this White House should and can do no less.