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Chilcot inquiry: don’t mention the oil

The Chilcot inquiry kept the oil industry and private interests free from scrutiny. Greg Muttitt and David Whyte report

August 18, 2016
11 min read


David WhyteDavid Whyte is professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool and a writer for OpenDemocracy and Bella Caledonia


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oil field (Picture: Wikimedia Commons – a U.S. soldier stands guard near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field)

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The anti-war demonstration in London on 15 February 2003 was the biggest protest in British history. And probably the most popular slogan on the placards and banners that day was ‘No blood for oil’. It was a connection that seemed obvious to many on the march but was repeatedly ridiculed by supporters of the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair said that ‘the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it.’

Why is it so easy to dismiss the idea that access to oil and the interests of those who profit from it may be part of the motive for war? Why, given our experience of wars though the ages, is this not the first question we ask? After all, as the celebrated General Smedley Butler famously observed after completing numerous military campaigns on behalf of the nascent US empire: ‘War is a racket. It always has been.’

By the standards of an official inquiry, Chilcot’s was utterly damning of a government that took the country to war without justification. But compared to the evidence Chilcot had, his conclusions were mild, because the questions he asked were limited. In particular, while noting that there was no convincing case for WMD, even at the time, Chilcot failed to ask how other political and economic motivations affected decisions.

Was it a war for oil?

A year after the February 2003 demonstration, an international opinion poll conducted by US think tank, the Pew Research Centre, asked sample populations from nine countries (the US, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and Jordan) about the ‘war on terrorism’. The majority in all but two countries (the US and Britain) thought it was ‘to control Mideast oil’. It is worth underlining that the question was not just asking about the invasion of Iraq, but about the motive for a war on terrorism full stop.

The occupying powers forced through a series of neoliberal reforms that placed Iraq at the mercy of international financial institutions and corporations

When it comes to the Iraq war, they were right. Evidence released with the report shows unequivocally that using Iraqi oil to boost British energy supplies was a central pre-war aim. A February 2002 Cabinet Office paper described the UK’s objectives as ‘preserving peace and stability in the Gulf and ensuring energy security‘. Right up to the withdrawal of British troops in 2009, successive British strategy documents, also released by Chilcot, maintain two consistent objectives: transfer the oil sector from public ownership to multinationals, and ensure that BP and Shell get a large share. Sometimes a third oil objective appears: to make Iraq an advocate of low oil prices within OPEC.

Yet Chilcot failed to quiz any of the politicians or officials about the priority of oil to the British government. Some of the transcripts show this reluctance very clearly:

Michael Wareing: Yes, and, you know, even at the time of the oil contracts being bid for, you know – as you’ll know, BP won the Ramallah field, which is a huge field. Even at that time, there was a lot of discussion in Iraq as to the legality of that bid process and whether or not the Cabinet had the authority to do it without the Supreme Council agreeing and, you know, in a very Middle Eastern way, if you like, a very Iraqi way, these things just sort of were very complicated and very difficult.

The Chairman: Time is pressing on us now, so I think we had better move on. Roderic? (spotted by @chunkymark)

A partnership of oil and state

The summary of the Chilcot report is 150 pages long, but does not mention oil, except to repeat a claim by Blair’s Iraq envoy Jeremy Greenstock that under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) the UK had less influence over oil than the US. Then again, Greenstock would say that: immediately on his return from Iraq he took up a job at BP. To prevent conflicts of interest, a civil service committee normally reviews such appointments and in this case ordered that Greenstock do no Iraq business for six months. Yet within three months he was lobbying interim prime minister Allawi on behalf of BP. Chilcot interviewed Greenstock twice, but did not ask about oil nor the conflict of interest with his role at BP.

The revolving door spun the other way too. Terry Adams, a former head of BP Azerbaijan, was funded by the UK government to work on oil issues under the CPA, and then to begin drafting new Iraqi oil policy under Allawi in late 2004. He wrote a ‘code of practice’ for the Iraqi oil ministry, which called for multinational companies to play the major role in developing Iraq’s oil, and for the ministry’s policies to be compatible specifically with those of BP.

One thing that stands out from reading the factual material in section 10.3 of the Chilcot report is that policy on Iraqi oil was consistently made ‘working closely’ or ‘in close contact’ with BP and Shell. The book Fuel on the Fire revealed that during the six months before the war began, the UK government held at least five meetings – denied at the time – with BP and Shell. Chilcot noted three of these, but added that the record of one BP meeting in November 2002 was forwarded to Blair himself. Chilcot also noted many more meetings with BP and Shell throughout the occupation. What is remarkable is that although all of this damning evidence is buried deep in the 2.6 million-word report, not one of the corporate officials involved in this complex web of meetings and negotiations were called by Chilcot to give evidence.

Wild west in the Middle East

The UN gave the US and UK governments the authority to spend Iraqi oil revenue on the reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure. It did not authorise what happened next: US and UK companies received 85 per cent of the value of all contracts worth $5 million plus. Iraqi firms, by contrast, received just 2 per cent of those contracts, which, not incidentally, were paid for with Iraqi oil funds.

Shortly before the war, Patricia Hewitt, as trade and industry secretary, actually lobbied the US not for more funds to go to the Iraqis, but for more to go to British firms. The Chilcot report also revealed that by June 2003, foreign secretary Jack Straw was urging Blair to lobby the US on behalf of Siemens UK for access to power supply contracts. By the end of the CPA’s first year of occupation, there were over 60 UK companies working in Iraq on contracts worth an estimated US$2.6 billion.

All of this is documented in Chilcot, but it is not investigated or treated as significant. Neither Patricia Hewitt nor Jack Straw were scrutinised about their role in touting for British business, or indeed whether this was important context for understanding how the war was played out.

It is now well documented that the US and UK as occupying powers forced through a series of neoliberal reforms that placed Iraq at the mercy of international financial institutions and transnational corporations. The CPA ended protections for local producers and forced factories and farms out of business. The creation of a corrupt reconstruction economy left the healthcare and education systems – already weak after the combined effects of sanctions and war – decimated.

Profiting from war, as so many British and American companies did, is not permitted in the laws of war. Neither is reconstructing the economy in the image of the Washington Consensus neoliberal policy prescriptions. A memo from the attorney general to Tony Blair and his cabinet on 26 March 2003 – which was put before the inquiry as evidence – made this abundantly clear. Neither Tony Blair, nor Hilary Benn, then international development secretary, can plausibly claim they did not know that the occupation was conducted illegally. Again, Chilcot did not quiz them on the legality of occupation, or on precisely where the spoils of war went.

Privatising war itself

One striking characteristic of the Iraq war was the unprecedented scale of private companies’ role. Firms such as Aegis, Olive Group, Armourgroup, Control Risks and Janusian used Iraq to expand their business on an unprecedented scale. As Andy Bearpark, director-general of the British Association of Private Security, put it in a BBC interview, ‘money was basically free’ as private security contracts ‘were being let for ridiculous amounts of money – millions and millions of dollars of contracts being pumped into the industry.’

One thing that stands out from Chilcot is that policy on Iraqi oil was consistently made ‘working closely’ or ‘in close contact’ with BP and Shell

The cost to civilians was huge, as these new private armies were able to act with impunity, often adopting a policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. The most infamous incident was Blackwater’s 2007 massacre of 17 unarmed civilians in Nisoor Square, Baghdad, but reports indicate such incidents were common, and some involved British private military companies. At the launch of the report much was rightly made of the rights of the families of the 179 British war dead to know about the reasons for going to war. But the rights of the families of the unknown total (it is certainly higher than 50) of British private military personnel who were killed went without mention.

Other than Bearpark, Chilcot called no witnesses from the private military industry and made no systematic inquiry. Bearpark was called only in his previous capacity as the CPA director of operations – before he seamlessly moved into playing a leading role in the private military industry.

Iraq today

For the Iraqi people, the war never ended. As Iraq Body Count has noted, the number of deaths every month since the 2003 invasion has never fallen below 250. The highest monthly total was 4,083 – in 2014. According to the UN, by 2007 up to four million Iraqis had become refugees. Since then, water shortages have been described by Iraqi government officials as the worst ever and agricultural food production has been at record lows. Today things are clearly even worse for the Iraqi people, with the World Bank warning of up to a third of the population living below the poverty line.

In a way, Britain achieved its objectives. Since 2010 Iraqi oil production has mostly been in the hands of multinationals, with BP and Shell holding some of the largest contracts. After their arrival, corruption skyrocketed. Two western oil companies were investigated for giving or receiving bribes. Contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab. Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized, and leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.

Public and private

If it was his lack of concern with the motive for going to war that frames Chilcot’s general approach, it is another, distinctly establishment, way of thinking that shaped the practice of who and what could come before the inquiry. The fact that Chilcot’s evidence was drawn almost exclusively from the public sector betrays a particular way of doing politics in tthe UK and other liberal democracies: that the private sector of business has a right to privacy. Drawing this formal distinction between public and private spheres was indeed part of Chilcot’s modus operandus: all the documents he called were government documents and all individuals who gave evidence were public officials and politicians.

Contrary to what we were led to believe, the Iraq inquiry did not take a ‘neutral’ position on the war. It took a clear decision to allow the ‘private’ world of corporate capital to remain private and the intimate relationship between government and corporate capital that helps us understand the real motives and causes of war to remain hidden.

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David WhyteDavid Whyte is professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool and a writer for OpenDemocracy and Bella Caledonia


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