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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
Iraq: Is it about oil?
Iraqi refinery, Basra
Iraq has the world's second largest oil reserves

The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz says that the threats against Iraq are really about oil.

"The aim of the American policies is the oil in the Gulf" is how he puts it.

Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in its oil reserves. According to the respected Platts Guide, it has proven reserves of 112 billion barrels, mostly in southern Iraq.

Enlarge image
Enlarge image

Iraq's oilfields and world oil production figures

Platts quoted the senior deputy Oil Minister, Taha Hmud, as saying in May 2002 that Iraq's reserves could amount to 300 billion barrels.

Tariq Aziz is an old hand in the propaganda game.

He was foreign minister in the run up to the Gulf War, and revels in the to and fro of the media war, in which the battle for world public opinion is fought out.

By reducing the confrontation to the issue of oil, he is appealing to a large constituency in the Arab world and beyond which believes that, yes, at heart, this is a strategic issue in which control of Iraq's oil is central.

Old accusation

The Gulf War itself threw up the same accusation when it was said that the United States would not have gone to war if Kuwait simply produced cabbages.

Saddam Hussein
Toppling Saddam Hussein is the US' prime objective, say analysts

The charge was encapsulated in a mock trial of American and other leaders by a Commission of Inquiry, convened by a former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, helped by a number of lawyers and human rights figures from around the world.

The conclusions of those proceedings in 1991 (in which the defendants were found "guilty") stated:

"We believe that the real goal of the United States war against Iraq is to return to the "good old days" when the US and some European countries totally plundered the resources of the Middle East.

"While the big oil companies have a going partnership with the feudal rulers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates etc, they are relatively locked out of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen and Algeria."

The accusation is basically the same today.

It is supported and indeed broadened by activists like the British MP George Galloway, who has become close to the Iraqi leadership.

He told Al-Jazeera TV: "You do not have to be a genius like Einstein to realise that the US-Israeli plans aim at keeping the Arabs weak and divided so that they can steal Arab wealth and defend their illegitimate son, Israel."

Vested interest

The West undoubtedly has an interest in Iraq's oil.

The Economist magazine, no friend to Saddam, concluded recently that "America's chief interest in going after Saddam Hussein is doubtless to save the world from his actual or potential weapons of mass destruction.

UN Security Council
The UN voted to allow Iraq to export oil for food

"Another large consideration (is) the effects that would follow from the opening up of the country's enormous reserves of oil."

The Economist noted that "if Iraq were to produce oil at a rate to match its reserves, it could end Saudi Arabia's domination of world oil markets.

"That would not come too soon for the United States. America is by far the world's biggest oil user, burning up a quarter of the total consumed.

"Now America's leaders increasingly feel - as Winston Churchill remarked of converting the British fleet from coal to petroleum before the first world war - that 'safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone'."

So it would be naive to deny that oil is not a factor in American and Western thinking. But is it the main factor?

'This is about Saddam'

Dr John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies - which last week produced a report on Iraq's weapons capabilities - told BBC News Online: "This is entirely about Saddam Hussein.

Oil, while still important, is less of a strategic issue than it used to be

"The most important consideration is that Saddam Hussein has been defying the ceasefire conditions imposed after the Gulf War, and the issue is whether that ceasefire should be ended or extended."

Dr Chipman accepts that there is an American interest in "preventing Saddam from using his resources to continue his threatening stance", but maintains that the threats to Saddam are "entirely based on security considerations."

According to this argument, it is not the possession of Iraqi oil which is the main factor, but the threat posed by Saddam.

If he just sold his oil and used it for peaceful purposes, nobody would worry.

Oil surplus

Oil industry insiders say that currently there is a glut of oil on the world market. The US does not need oil from Iraq, though some of the Iraqi oil exported does end up in American hands.

It therefore does not have an immediate incentive to go to war to protect that supply.

Japan in 1941 did have that incentive after President Roosevelt imposed an oil embargo.

The US has already followed the example of Churchill's diversification policy and makes sure that it does not become reliant on one source.

Oil experts say that oil is a far more available product now than it was even 10 years ago, and that the world is unlikely to run out of it for decades and decades to come.

More and more oil is being recovered. The amount of oil which can be pumped from an oil field is now up from the traditional 15% to 20% to 30% to 40%.

Oil, while still important, is less of a strategic issue than it used to be. But it is still an issue.

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