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Unravelling the Carbon Web is a project by PLATFORM. We work to reduce the environmental and social impacts of oil corporations, to help citizens gain a say in decisions that affect them, and to support the transition to a more sustainable energy economy.

The white man's burden and 'oil for peace' in Iraq

Take up the White Man’s burden

The savage wars of peace

Fill full the mouth of Famine and bid the sickness cease.

Rudyard Kipling, 1899

Pressure for Iraq’s controversial oil law intensified throughout the summer, with increasingly overt threats to topple the Iraqi government if it failed to deliver an oil law and other US "benchmarks".

President Bush put it bluntly: "The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people?"

Bush probably didn’t see the irony of his comment. For if the "people" he referred to were the Iraqi people, overwhelming majorities in fact demand an end to the occupation, and reject the USA’s plans for their oil.

An opinion poll commissioned by PLATFORM and its partners in July found that Iraqis oppose the opening of the country’s oilfields to foreign investment by a factor of two to one. The poll also found that fewer than a quarter of Iraqis feel adequately informed about the oil law.

Two conferences in early September demonstrated the gulf between what Iraqis want and what the occupation-sponsored oil policy would give them.

"Iraq is open for business", promised Oil Ministry officials to executives of BP, Shell, Exxon and other oil giants at the Iraq Petroleum 2007 conference in Dubai.

Whilst they trod the soft carpets of the five-star Hyatt Regency hotel, 600 miles away in Basra, over 250 civil society leaders, oilworkers, academics and experts were meeting, under the banner "Oil wealth belongs to the Iraqi people".

The Basra conference was organised by the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), which has led the campaign against oil privatisation. That campaign has so far succeeded in stopping an oil law being passed before the major US deadline of General Petraeus’ report to the US Congress.

For its efforts, the IFOU has been threatened with arrest of its leaders, declared an illegal organisation, and physically attacked by troops. Fortunately, a strong solidarity response from the international labour movement has helped restrain the Iraqi government’s and occupation forces’ worst excesses.

However, pressure for the oil law continues. Not to be outdone by the Kurdistan Regional Government, which signed its fifth small-scale production sharing agreement (this time with Texas-based Hunt Oil), the federal Oil Minister has declared that even if the oil law is not passed by parliament, he intends to start signing contracts, potentially by the end of this year – relying on Saddam-era legislation.

The USA’s next move will depend on how legally comfortable oil majors feel signing contracts without an oil law.

The USA justifies its pressure on grounds that an oil law would help bring reconciliation.

Even if that account fitted the facts (which it doesn’t - their oil law barely mentions the revenue sharing they claim is so important), even if the USA were not responsible for sponsoring the sectarianism that is now tearing at the country, the very concept of the US benchmarks is based on a racist premise: that Iraqis are not able to sort out their politics themselves, that they need US pressure to get the country on track. That is a premise almost unanimously accepted by the media.

And White Men continue to pontificate on what’s best for Iraqis. Noteworthy was an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled "Oil for peace", by Nick Butler, former Policy Director of BP and New Labour confidante. He argued that "the most useful parting gift that the coalition could leave [...] is a practical model for renewal of the oil sector".

But the spin is now wearing thin.

It is a matter of record that until 2002 the USA and UK publicly identified their strategic interests in Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil. Equally, both countries do not deny that they have played a central role in shaping Iraqi oil policy, albeit with claims of noble motives.

In his new memoir, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan joined the dots and stated what no-one else is allowed to say: that oil was the main motivation for the Iraq war.

In this spirit, we should understand the "oil for peace" slogan as what it really is: the USA has no intention of giving peace to Iraq, until Iraq gives away control of its oil. In the best interests of Iraqis, of course.

Greg Muttitt is an expert on Iraqi oil and a co-director of PLATFORM