Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Yes, Australia, We Are Still Very Much In Iraq

"In Iraq you’ve got a nation that’s got the second-largest oil reserves in the world, second only to Saudi Arabia. It will generate billions of dollars a year in cash flow if they get back to their production of roughly three million barrels of oil a day, in the relatively near future. And that flow of resources, obviously, belongs to the Iraqi people, needs to be put to use by the Iraqi people for the Iraqi people and that will be one of our major objectives."
- Dick Cheney, NBC interview March 16, 2003

In January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair ridiculed allegations of a looming war-for-oil as "conspiracy theories". A few weeks later, these "conspiracy theorists" turned out en masse for the biggest demonstrations the world has ever seen:
According to BBC News, between six and ten million people took part in protests in up to sixty countries over the weekend of the 15th and 16th [February 2003]; other estimates range from eight million to thirty million.
The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, insisted that the protests were not representative of public opinion:
"I don't know that you can measure public opinion just by the number of people that turn up at demonstrations."
The war went ahead anyway, of course. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it? It all depends which version of history you read: the facts on both sides are still being regularly, sometimes manically, revised and updated. And Australia’s continuing role in Iraq remains, even after more than five years of war, studiously under-reported and curiously unchallenged. If you accept, as those 2003 “conspiracy theorists” did, that this was a war for oil, then you have to ask yourself whether Australia still hopes to secure a share of those oil resources (and if so, how). Just don’t expect your government or the Australian corporate media to help you find the answer.

Last week the Bush administration responded to a New York Times story, claiming they were not involved in the latest discussions between Iraq's Ministry Of Oil and major western oil companies. The negotiations set up no-bid deals (payable in oil, not cash) which open the door for Big Oil companies - including Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP - to return to Iraq after decades in absentia. But yesterday the New York Times confirmed that US government lawyers were closely involved in drafting the new laws.

Andrew Tilghman at TPM picked up an interesting mistake in the NYT story:
Near the end of the story, the Times reports:
Advisers from the State, Commerce, Energy and Interior Departments are assigned to work with the Iraqi Oil Ministry, according to the senior diplomat. In addition, the United States Agency for International Development has a contract for Management Systems International, a Washington consulting firm, to advise the oil and other ministries. The agency's program is called Tatweer, the Arabic word for development.
A Washington consulting firm? Actually, Management Systems International is a subsidiary of a massive Australian company, Coffey International Ltd. focusing on mining, oil and gas infrastructure projects.

And guess who some of their clients are? Global oil companies including Cheveron, Royal Dutch Shell and BP.

So the company that touts big oil as clients is helping the Iraqi government negotiate with those companies -- and getting paid by the U.S. government to do so.
Not coincidentally, Australia's own BHP Billiton is one of the big oil companies now set to return to Iraq. Specialist oil blogger Greg Muttit notes that technical service contracts, of the kind being awarded, usually go to specialist contractors.
"In no other country are the likes of BP or ExxonMobil carrying out such TSCs."
Meanwhile, the "sovereign" Iraqi government is now suing AWB for paying almost $300 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein. It's not clear how this will affect Iraqi negotiations to buy wheat from AWB, particularly as the AWB has just lost its single-desk monopoly on exports.

But it's interesting that BHP Billiton's corporate development boss, Tom Harley, who was named in the Cole inquiry as one of the architects of BHP's plan to use AWB to ship large bundles of wheat to Iraq, has just resigned.

And of course, Alexander Downer, who knew nothing - nothing! - about the AWB bribes is also resigning this week. The Rudd government’s support for Downer’s move to the UN suggests they do not plan to bring him before any embarrassing enquiries. This is unfortunate, but it further confirms suspicions about Rudd’s stance on Iraq.

Our Aussie "combat troops" (not to be confused with the "soft, cuddly troops") may have returned home from Iraq last month, but our new government remains deeply committed to "the mission". By failing to explore the details and logic of our continued engagement in Iraq, the Australian media also betrays a continued commitment at the corporate level.

Do ordinary Australians support continuing efforts to secure Iraq’s oil resources for our nation’s corporate profit? Who knows? Nobody's asking and nobody's telling. But this is hardly an idle question. As Sunshine Coast blogger Bill Hoffnan warns:
History will eventually see the Iraq War of 2003-ad infinitum as either the first or the last of the big 21st century battles for control of global resources.

It will either become a footnote in the emergence of a more enlightened world or a glimpse into the horror of the legacy we are building for our sons and daughters and our grandchildren.

PS: Nicole Johnson is an Aussie reporting for Al Jazeera: