Two disclosures expose what we knew in 2002: the Iraq War was about oil (or at least a significant part of it)
Secret memos expose link between oil firms and invasion of Iraq
Paul Bignell, The Independent, April 19, 2011
Plans to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world’s largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.
The papers, revealed here for the first time, raise new questions over Britain’s involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair’s cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.
The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as “highly inaccurate”. BP denied that it had any “strategic interest” in Iraq, while Tony Blair described “the oil conspiracy theory” as “the most absurd”.
But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.
Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to US plans for regime change.
The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf because the oil giant feared it was being “locked out” of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.
Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: “Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”
The minister then promised to “report back to the companies before Christmas” on her lobbying efforts.
The Foreign Office invited BP in on 6 November 2002 to talk about opportunities in Iraq “post regime change”. Its minutes state: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.”
After another meeting, this one in October 2002, the Foreign Office’s Middle East director at the time, Edward Chaplin, noted: “Shell and BP could not afford not to have a stake in [Iraq] for the sake of their long-term future… We were determined to get a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq.”
Whereas BP was insisting in public that it had “no strategic interest” in Iraq, in private it told the Foreign Office that Iraq was “more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time”.
BP was concerned that if Washington allowed TotalFinaElf’s existing contact with Saddam Hussein to stand after the invasion it would make the French conglomerate the world’s leading oil company. BP told the Government it was willing to take “big risks” to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.
Over 1,000 documents were obtained under Freedom of Information over five years by the oil campaigner Greg Muttitt. They reveal that at least five meetings were held between civil servants, ministers and BP and Shell in late 2002.
The 20-year contracts signed in the wake of the invasion were the largest in the history of the oil industry. They covered half of Iraq’s reserves – 60 billion barrels of oil, bought up by companies such as BP and CNPC (China National Petroleum Company), whose joint consortium alone stands to make £403m ($658m) profit per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq.
Last week, Iraq raised its oil output to the highest level for almost decade, 2.7 million barrels a day – seen as especially important at the moment given the regional volatility and loss of Libyan output. Many opponents of the war suspected that one of Washington’s main ambitions in invading Iraq was to secure a cheap and plentiful source of oil.
Mr Muttitt, whose book Fuel on Fire is published next week, said: “Before the war, the Government went to great lengths to insist it had no interest in Iraq’s oil. These documents provide the evidence that give the lie to those claims.
“We see that oil was in fact one of the Government’s most important strategic considerations, and it secretly colluded with oil companies to give them access to that huge prize.”
Lady Symons, 59, later took up an advisory post with a UK merchant bank that cashed in on post-war Iraq reconstruction contracts. Last month she severed links as an unpaid adviser to Libya’s National Economic Development Board after Colonel Gaddafi started firing on protesters. Last night, BP and Shell declined to comment.
Not about oil? what they said before the invasion
* Foreign Office memorandum, 13 November 2002, following meeting with BP: “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity to compete. The long-term potential is enormous…”
* Tony Blair, 6 February 2003: “Let me just deal with the oil thing because… the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it. The fact is that, if the oil that Iraq has were our concern, I mean we could probably cut a deal with Saddam tomorrow in relation to the oil. It’s not the oil that is the issue, it is the weapons…”
* BP, 12 March 2003: “We have no strategic interest in Iraq. If whoever comes to power wants Western involvement post the war, if there is a war, all we have ever said is that it should be on a level playing field. We are certainly not pushing for involvement.”
* Lord Browne, the then-BP chief executive, 12 March 2003: “It is not in my or BP’s opinion, a war about oil. Iraq is an important producer, but it must decide what to do with its patrimony and oil.”
* Shell, 12 March 2003, said reports that it had discussed oil opportunities with Downing Street were ‘highly inaccurate’, adding: “We have neither sought nor attended meetings with officials in the UK Government on the subject of Iraq. The subject has only come up during conversations during normal meetings we attend from time to time with officials… We have never asked for ‘contracts’.”
Patrick Cockburn: They denied it was about Iraq’s resources. But it never rang true
Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, April 19, 2011
The supposed disinterest expressed by international oil companies in the outcome of the invasion of Iraq in the year before it was launched never quite made sense. Iraqis used to ask ironically if the rest of the world would have been quite so interested in the fate of their country if its main export had been cabbages.
Oil companies are intensely interested in what happens in Iraq because it contains some of the world’s largest unexploited and under-exploited oilfields. This includes nine “super giants” around Basra each with 5 billion barrels of exploitable crude.
In 2002 many British companies were suspicious that they might be locked out by US oil companies in the event of the US becoming the dominant power in Iraq. This was not a paranoid suspicion; early non-oil contracts awarded by the US-dominated administration in Baghdad in 2003 went to American corporations.
In the event Iraq has held three rounds of bidding for contracts to manage and develop Iraqi oilfields since 2008. BP along with China’s CNPC is heavily involved in Iraq’s largest oilfield, Rumaila, in the far south on the Kuwaiti border. Royal Dutch Shell with Petronas of Malaysia has the contract for the Majnoon field on the border with Iran. Exxonmobil and Royal Dutch Shell are developing West Qurna 1.
It has never seemed likely that the US and Britain invaded Iraq primarily for its oil. Reasserting US self-confidence as a super-power after 9/11 was surely a greater motive. The UK went along with this in order to remain America’s chief ally. Both President Bush and Tony Blair thought the war would be easy.
But would they have gone to war if Iraq had been producing cabbages? Probably not.
Iraqi oil supply was considered to be ‘vital’ to British interests
Jonathan Brown, Paul Bignell and Andy McSmith, The Independent, April 20, 2011
The British Government saw Iraqi oil as “vital” to the UK’s long-term energy security, and the effective privatisation of its oil industry was central to the post-invasion plan for the country, according to previously unseen Whitehall documents.
The UK was already working behind the scenes to ensure British companies did not lose out to competitors in the region, reveal strategy papers that were discussed at the highest level across Whitehall just days after President George W Bush declared “mission accomplished” in May 2003.
Despite Tony Blair and his ministers’ public insistence that Iraq’s vast oil reserves – then estimated at 112 billion barrels – were a matter for the Iraqis alone, officials warned a meeting of the “inter-departmental Oil Sector Liaison Group (OSLG)” that appearing “gratuitously exploitative” in its policy goals – which included the aim to “maximise benefit to British industry and thus British employment/economy” – could “backfire politically”.
Minutes of a meeting held on 12 May 2003 starkly spell out the importance of the issue, stating: “The future shape of the Iraqi industry will affect oil markets, and the functioning of Opec, in both of which we have a vital interest.”
The latest disclosures follow the publication yesterday of minutes of meetings held between senior oil-industry executives and government ministers in the run-up to the war – despite official claims that no such talks occurred. The first of three documents assessing the situation in the immediate aftermath of the invasion sets out what is described as “required action” resulting from a meeting attended by representatives from key government departments including the Foreign Office, the then Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for International Development and the Treasury.
Officials cite the oil industry as the “first main target” when asked to establish “where specific prospects for British industry exist and ensure we are properly placed to take them”. The group was also urged to consider when a “senior British oil industry person should go out to Iraq to survey the ground and, if appropriate, participate in [for example] the emerging Oil Advisory Board”.
Two weeks later, London officials outlined a “desirable” outcome for Iraqi’s crippled oil industry as “an oil sector open and attractive to foreign investment, with appropriate arrangements for the exploitation of new fields”.
The paper concluded “foreign companies’ involvement seems to be the only possible solution” to make Iraq a reliable oil exporter. But the document recognised that would be “politically sensitive”, and would “require careful handling to avoid the impression that we are trying to push the Iraqis down one particular path”.
The disclosures are among 1,000 documents obtained by the campaigner Greg Muttitt whose new book, Fuel on the Fire, is published by Random House tomorrow. Mr Muttitt said: “These documents demonstrate again the central importance of oil to Britain’s thinking on Iraq.” A Foreign Office spokesman denied that oil interests had driven policy. “It is normal to consider the commercial risks and opportunities presented by geopolitical events,” he said. “But this is not to say that those risks and opportunities directed our policy on Iraq.”
One leading Tory MP, who asked not to be identified, said yesterday that the revelations “come as no surprise to me”. He added: “In May 2002… a serving officer in the Ministry of Defence said to me: ‘We’re planning for ground operations to start on 19 March next year.’ He [said]… they couldn’t give a damn about the politics. There is no question that the armed services knew it as a racing certainty when the war would start.”
The deal-makers – where are they now?
As Trade minister, told BP five months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq’s oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair’s military commitment to US plans for regime change. Papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on behalf of BP. She later took up an advisory post with investment bank MerchantBridge, which profited from post-war Iraq reconstruction contracts. She is an international consultant to lawyers DLA Piper, and for Consolidated Contractors Oil and Gas.
Veteran oilman and formerly BP’s group vice-president in Russia, Caspian, Middle East and Africa. He led a BP delegation to the Foreign Office on 6 November 2002, in which civil servants and oil executives discussed oil-drilling prospects for British companies in Iraq. BP insisted before the war it had “no strategic interest” in Iraq, but in documents disclosed in this newspaper yesterday, it can be seen telling the Foreign Office at that meeting it regarded Iraq as “vitally important” and it would be prepared to take “big risks” in pursuit of business there. Paniguian left BP in 2008.
Since leaving office in 2007, he has made a reported £20m through business engagements. Consultancies he accepted included those with JPMorgan and the Kuwaiti royal family. Has also advised South Korea’s UI Energy Corporation, one of the biggest investors in Iraq’s oil-rich Kurdistan region. Currently serves as a Middle East peace envoy.
Sir Michael Arthur
As the Foreign Office’s senior economic adviser, he hosted a presentation there for BP on Iraqi oil prospects on 6 November 2002. He went on to become British High Commissioner in New Delhi, and then went to Berlin as British ambassador in 2007. Retired from the Diplomatic Service last year.