WHEN US Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked if the planned war with Iraq was all about oil, he denied it, claiming "the oil of Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people" and would not be exploited for America’s own purposes. Few people believed him.
A US-led war against Iraq will have enormous, political, social and economic repercussions in the Middle East and throughout the world. In the following articles ROGER SHRIVES examines how the war could serve the strategic oil interests of US imperialism, while MANNY THAIN weighs up the stark fate such a war would have for ordinary Iraqis.
Blood for oil
It’s true that oil’s not the only reason why President Bush wants to crush Saddam’s Iraq. US imperialism needs to strengthen its prestige and increase its longer-term political interests worldwide. Bush’s advisers hope that an invasion will make any other ’third world’ leader contemplating opposition think again.
But Iraq has the world’s second largest stocks of proven oil reserves. With full investment it could provide about a third of the US’s huge oil demand (20 million barrels a day) within five years. Noticeably Colin Powell would not answer when reporters asked him if US companies would control Iraq oilfields if US forces ousted Saddam.
Many leading members of this US administration are or were directors of oil and other energy companies – the biggest corporate backers of Bush and Cheney’s 2000 presidential election campaign. For them, the vital question is who controls – and profits from – strategic oil supplies.
As a former oilman and US-based businessman Fadel Gheit said: "Our way of life is dependent on 20 million barrels a day and half of it has to be imported." He called Bush’s ’global fight against terrorism’, mere camouflage to mask the real purpose.
US big business wants to control any oil concessions that would result from victory in the war and the end of Saddam’s dictatorship.
Oil has been vital in the Middle East and the Gulf since extraction began in Iran in 1909. Defending oil supplies is probably the decisive consideration when imperialist powers consider military intervention in the region.
Much of the West’s oil supplies come through the Gulf. An amazing 20% of all US military war spending ($237 billion last year but increasing in 2003) goes on defending oil installations.
In 1920, after putting down a Kurdish revolt, British imperialism created the state of Iraq with a puppet king to push Britain’s political needs and give priority to British oil interests. Imperialist powers have tried to keep up this pattern of economic and political control ever since.
Former US ally
BUSH SAYS Saddam is a dictator. True – but the imperialist powers created both Saddam’s dictatorship and his war machine, largely to defend their oil interests. In the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in over one million casualties, the US and Britain armed him to fight Iran, then the US’s main enemy.
In 1983 President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld – now Bush’s defence secretary but then a millionaire executive with a pharmaceutical company – to Saddam as a special envoy.
Rumsfeld knew Saddam was a thug with nuclear ambitions. But he told him that the US saw "any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West". The US backed Saddam’s armies with military intelligence, economic aid and munitions.
The US hoped that Saddam’s war would destroy the ayatollahs who were threatening to spread political Islam throughout the region. They feared that pro-imperialist regimes acting as armed guards for Western oil interests could topple.
But the US wanted a regional balance of power where no local state could dominate this oil-rich region. When the US’s puppet Saddam started getting regional imperial aims, he bit through his strings and invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Now the US turned against him and in the 1991 Gulf War which followed, they killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians, essentially to defend US oil interests.
Even after that, the US government worried that if Saddam fell, chaos would follow, in Iraq and throughout the region, possibly igniting another Middle East war. And so George Bush senior having encouraged the Kurds and Shi’ites to rise up in revolt, abandoned them to Saddam’s ruthless Republican Guards.
Fears of what might happen in such Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia and Egypt still haunt Bush’s less dim colleagues. These fears even affected half-hearted US attempts to get rid of Saddam.
CIA officials in Washington "pulled the plug" on support for a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam in 1995 and the US concentrated on punitive sanctions – which trebled child mortality in Iraq through malnutrition. According to the United Nations, up to 500,000 Iraqi deaths are attributable to these sanctions.
BUSH SENIOR gained the backing of most Middle Eastern states in 1991 by promising a "new world order", including a Middle East free of armaments, if Arab and Muslim people helped evict Saddam from Kuwait. Bush junior can only offer a new US-friendly regime in Baghdad.
Many Middle Eastern states are now wary of supporting US imperialism’s venture. Bush still backs the Israeli state’s oppression of the Palestinians, and other leaders fear the invasion of Iraq by friends of Israel could make people so angry that their own regimes could collapse.
Some US strategists now wonder whether even top oil producer, Saudi Arabia, is still the haven of stability that it has defended since 1945. The Saudi royals lead a feudal regime whose elite enrich themselves by controlling the world’s oil supply as top provider.
But some Saudi nationals are prominent members of al-Qa’ida. Half of all Saudis are unemployed or under-employed and many want to replace the Saud family’s reactionary theocratic regime by an even more ’fundamentalist’ government.
US Republican senator Conrad Burns is one of many asking whether defending a regime which could soon be replaced by one hostile to US interests is worthwhile. He calls the Saudi regime a ’dictatorship’ which "emanates fanaticism" and says it is leading an oil cartel.
Burns suggests looking for alternative sources of oil. He proposes Russia but at present only Iraq, with reserves of up to 200 billion barrels, could replace Saudi oil. The US ruling class see ’regime change’ in Baghdad as ensuring unfettered exploitation of Iraq’s oil reserves.
THE IMPORTANCE of oil also brings problems. If the US wins, Bush and Co have offered greedy multinational oil companies the prospect of making huge profits from controlling a portion of Iraq’s proven oil reserves – provided their governments back Bush’s war.
US hawks say Bush should threaten his rivals that if they don’t back him the US should make sure that the new Iraqi government does not co-operate with them.
That prospect angers US imperialism’s rivals. Even if, with various degrees of willingness, they back Bush’s invasion they may well see his plans as a Washington oil grab. Many oil concerns from outside the US have met Iraqi opposition leaders to argue that they should get a stake.
France, Russia, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, Algeria and a consortium of European oil companies have all at times signed agreements with Iraq at least in principle. How long will these powers keep co-operating with the USA?
Lord Browne, oil giant BP’s chief executive, said last autumn: "If Iraq changes regime… there should be a level playing field for the selection of oil companies to go in there". His views may presage future arguments between oil bosses of different nations over the spoils of war.
Even more worrying from a Western viewpoint, military intervention could have serious political repercussions throughout the region, including in oil producing nations. Oil supplies are vital to the health of the world economy.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Middle East oil states reduced supplies to the capitalist world and oil prices quadrupled to $40 a barrel. The 1991 Gulf War caused large oil price rises which worsened the world economic situation.
This time, US-based strategic experts think oil prices could soar to $40 a barrel if the war took up to four months. The IMF estimates that a $5 a barrel rise in oil prices in a year knocks 0.25% off world gross domestic product. Bush thinks this ’disruption’ would only be temporary but it would still be significant.
Under capitalism, the people of this oil-producing region have gained little from their countries’ potential wealth but poverty, exploitation, vicious dictatorships and frequent wars. This new war would aim to rebuild Iraq even more in the image of imperialism and the oil magnates that Bush and Co. defend.
The Socialist Party opposes this threatened war for oil profits and fights for socialist policies that can offer an alternative to the nightmare that capitalism has brought for millions worldwide.
Collapsing into chaos
Afghanistan after the ’liberation’
AFGHANISTAN IS collapsing into chaos. Despite soothing words from Western politicians about progress towards peace and democracy and promised economic aid, the reality is grim.
A series of articles in the New York Times and Washington Post over the Christmas period revealed an Afghan’s average income for 2002 of just $75; millions of people dependent on food aid; three to a bed in Kabul’s children’s hospital, where children die on the operating table when the electricity fails (a regular occurrence) as there is no back-up generator. Opium production is booming. All sadly predictable.
Yet some money has gone into this war-torn country. It’s just that much of the $1.8 billion (less than half of what was pledged by donor countries) has been spent on new offices and air-conditioned jeeps for the 1,000-plus UN agencies and international aid groups.
They have made sure that they are set up comfortably, moving into the best residential areas – those vacated by the Taliban leaders.
It is, after all, a question of priorities. The Aschiana school, set up to educate street children, is likely to close. The landlord can make more money by renting it to aid organisations as a guest house.
WARLORDS CONTINUE to rule vast stretches of the countryside, including the borders. Ismail Khan controls the Western frontier and rakes in an estimated $1 million each day in customs duties/extortion.
Marshal Fahim, the ’defence minister’, has told the warlords they have to give up their grip on power. Yet Fahim has maintained the forces loyal to him and his position places the bulk of Afghanistan’s heavy weaponry and troops under his command!
The US has around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and is still searching for al-Qa’ida supremo, Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Apparently, ambushes on Western forces are increasing.
There have been grenade attacks in Kabul, car bombings, the attempted assassination of president Hamid Karzai, the killing of a US soldier near the Pakistan border, and reports of former Taliban moving back to their villages, with rumours of guerrilla training camps re-opening.
The only place the US has secured is Kabul and even that is bristling with arms. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), set up by the Western powers, destroyed over 108,000 items of anti-tank and other heavy artillery in the last few months of 2002, all found in scattered Kabul arms caches.
Women still walk the streets in fear, subjected to abuse, including from the ’police’, if they are not wearing a burqa. President Karzai is referred to disdainfully as the ’mayor of Kabul’ outside the capital and only ventures out if surrounded by Western bodyguards armed to the teeth.
Turkey, which heads the ISAF, refused Karzai’s request to deploy its troops throughout the country and fears an increase in terrorist attacks in the event of a war on Iraq. In February, the German and Dutch governments take over responsibility for ISAF, but they agreed to do so on the condition that the mission was limited to Kabul.
THERE IS mounting anger at the way the US forces are pushing their weight around. The Washington Post reported on 11 January that Naeem Koochi, a leader of a million Pashtun people, was jumped by five armed men while on his way to a top level meeting in Kabul. He was bundled into an unmarked vehicle and taken to the US air base at Bagram, where he has been held ever since, with no contact with the outside world.
Koochi is typical of many of the tribal leaders. He was an Islamic guerrilla who fought against the Soviet army with US backing in the 1980s before becoming a Taliban governor of Bamian. His ’arrest’ – or kidnapping – has provoked outrage among Pashtun people, with hundreds protesting against the US action. Human Rights Watch says that there are many such cases.
The US and other Western promised to rebuild this devastated country but have left it and the Afghani people to rot. However, it could still prove to be an awkward distraction for the US as it gears up for war against Saddam.
It’s one thing to win a military victory, but quite another to secure stability. How easy will it be to occupy Iraq?
Special feature from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, the CWI in England and Wales