Iraq: U.S. oil industry closes in on the prize

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In 1999, Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney stuck his head in the sand and saw dollar signs. He called it “the prize”: billions of barrels of Middle Eastern oil.

Now, Vice President Cheney and the oil barons he serves are closer than ever to the prize within the prize — Iraqi oil. The ink is nearly dry on Iraq’s new hydrocarbon law, a scheme to transfer Iraq’s vast oil wealth to U.S. and British companies. It will make the previous no-bid corporate rip-offs for “reconstruction” look like lemonade stands.

On the way to the bank, these neo-con artists will have to tiptoe around the hundreds of thousands of dead and mutilated bodies their war has produced. Their partners in crime, the Iraqi puppet government, will cheer them on.

But Iraqi voices of resistance are getting louder every day — and a mass rebellion against this law is the one force still capable of defeating it.

Payers and players. Washington has been shooting its way towards its ultimate prize, and Iraqis are the ones standing between it and its target.

According to a joint study by U.S. and Iraqi university researchers, 650,000 more Iraqis have died since the invasion than would normally be expected during that period of time. The overwhelming majority of them died by violence. People live in constant fear; about 1.5 million have fled as refugees. Unemployment exceeds 70 percent. Two-thirds of Iraqi children are not attending school.

Still, many people outside Iraq believe that the disaster will only worsen if U.S. troops leave. Iraqis do not share this view: two-thirds want foreign troops to leave now.

The Bush clique in Washington responsible for Iraqis’ troubles has two willing accomplices, Baghdad’s puppet government and the Democratic “opposition” at home.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is someone Washington can work with, for the moment. True, members of his Islamic fundamentalist, anti-communist, and anti-woman Dawa Party bombed the U.S. embassy in Kuwait in 1983. But today, he supports the hydrocarbon law.

Meanwhile, top Democrats as of this writing are dodging questions about the new law. They have at times taken potshots at the Bush administration with criticisms of no-bid contracts as “unfair” forms of corporate plunder.

But their basic position on the exploitation of Iraqi oil is clear from the conclusions of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group of 2006. The committee advised that the U.S. military “protect oil infrastructure and contractors” and that the U.S. government help “prepare a draft oil law” and “assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise.”

Iraqi oil is as profit-laden as it gets. Second only to Saudi Arabia in proven reserves, Iraq leads the planet in untapped oil fields. Its crude is of the highest quality, and sits very close to the surface, making it relatively inexpensive to produce.

The hydrocarbon law will transform Iraq’s long-nationalized oil industry into a privatized haven. Under the terms of the draft now before the Iraqi Parliament, oil majors like ExxonMobil and Chevron would acquire 30-year leases to the fields, and keep 75 percent of the profits until infrastructure investments are recouped. Thereafter, they would be allowed to keep 20 percent — an unprecedented amount in the Middle East, where 10 percent is more typical — under “production-sharing agreements” (perhaps with a different name, as PSAs are widely detested in the region).

According to the human rights and oil monitoring group Platform, the law was drafted with the help of the Virginia firm BearingPoint, sent for review to oil companies and the U.S. government, and then passed on to the International Monetary Fund. Baghdad politicians have only recently begun to read it.

They must have been told that the law is now ready for their signatures.

Repression and resistance. Oil represents 75 percent of Iraq’s gross domestic product; the country’s economic survival depends on it. The selloff of this resource will climax a campaign by the occupiers to restructure Iraq’s economy in their own interest (although international law makes this illegal).

Early on, occupation proconsul Paul Bremer declared every industry except oil, gas and banking open to privatization and foreign exploitation, while keeping Saddam Hussein’s anti-union laws intact. He lowered the monthly wage of most Iraqi workers to $35 (U.S.), eliminated food and housing subsidies, and gave outside corporations the right to keep 100 percent of their profits, with no obligation to reinvest in Iraq or hire Iraqi workers.

Bremer also arrested anti-occupation workers with the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.

In August 2003, Basra oil workers struck Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which had been given a lucrative, no-bid contract to repair oil facilities. Strikers won a pay raise to about $100 and the abandonment of a plan to exclude Iraqis from the work.

Iraqi unionists are aware of U.S. designs and determined to thwart them. Ghasib Hassan, the head of the Railway and Aviation Union, proclaimed that “we will never accept the privatization of oil.”

The primacy of oil also explains much of the sectarian fighting. Shiites and Kurds inhabit oil-rich regions. Most Sunnis do not, and their insurgency is partly about protecting a share of oil income.

But hostility to the oil sellout is hardly limited to the Sunnis. One prominent Shiite opponent at present is cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a militia of 80,000. The recent U.S. troop surge is designed in part to put down this opposition.

Alarmed at the growing restiveness, prominent establishment voices are urging Washington to act decisively. On February 17, the “anti-war” New York Times called on Congress to “link further financing for the war to the performance of Iraq’s Shiite-led government,” including “disarming sectarian militias” and “adopting a formula to share oil revenues equitably.”

In other words, it wants the Shiites in the government who are for the hydrocarbon law to neutralize the Shiites and Sunnis who are against it, and to placate the workers with whatever is left of oil revenues after the oil giants get their share.

Women workers and the way forward. The struggle for women’s rights in Iraq is key to winning the demands of workers and national independence. Given Washington’s undemocratic and anti-labor aims, it necessarily finds its base of support among conservatives — in this case, Islamic reactionaries. As this base grows stronger, women are among the first victims.

Iraqi women are increasingly deprived of ordinary freedoms and subject to rapes and “honor killings.” Compelled to defend themselves, they will find natural allies among workers fighting the imperialist rape of their country.

MADRE, an international women’s rights organization, observed that Washington “has strengthened conservative Islamic forces in Iraq,” but has made “no effort to engage with or include progressive women’s groups.” This has spurred many Iraqi women to “fight simultaneously against the U.S. occupation and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.”

The 2004 election of Hashimia Muhsin Hussein as the first female head of an Iraqi labor union is therefore of great significance. The Iraqi Federation of Workers’ Trade Unions attributed her victory in the Electricity and Energy Workers’ Union in Basra to “her reputation as a solid defender of workers’ rights and particularly of women’s rights.”

Iraqi workers and women need mutual political support to be successful. They are up against not only a misogynist, anti-labor Iraqi government of fundamentalist parties, but also the misogynist, anti-labor U.S. government of two corporate parties standing behind it.

And recognition of workers and women as the key progressive forces in Iraq is important for the anti-war movement internationally, especially in the U.S. — not least because of the light this understanding sheds on the nature of the enemy at home.

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