While change sweeps the Middle East and fighting escalates in Libya, the Chilcott Inquiry continues to consider the lessons of the Iraq war. The Inquiry has taught us more about the timing, process and legality of key decisions, but the elephant in the room remains the role oil played in those decisions.
“The oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it,” said Tony Blair in February 2003. His protestations were sufficiently effective that in media and parliamentary debates, raising the oil issue became a sure-fire route to losing credibility. And so Chilcott, who invited only official witnesses to give evidence, never considered it.
I wanted to know what was really happening to Iraq’s oil, and to that end I spent five years requesting several hundred government documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unwittingly, I was exploiting Blair’s greatest regret. A few days ago I released via the Independent some of the revelations from those documents.
“Iraq is the big oil prospect,” began the minutes of one meeting in the Foreign Office in November 2002. “BP are desperate to get in there”. This was one of at least five meetings between government officials and oil companies in the run-up to the war. BP and Shell both denied any such meetings took place.
In a meeting in October 2002, representatives of BP, Shell and BG (the former British Gas) asked Trade Minister Baroness Symons for the government’s help in getting them some of Iraq’s oilfields after the war. 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”. In other words, if British forces fought in the war, British companies should get their share of the spoils. Quite apart from the contradiction with the official statements, that policy would appear to be potentially illegal under the Hague Conventions. And an Early Day Motion in 2006/7, signed by 145 MPs of all parties, warned the government against interfering in Iraqi oil decisions.
Tracing the history of the occupation, I found that whenever faced with a choice between supporting the development of an effective democracy in Iraq or achieving their own interests (especially on oil), British and American officials consistently chose the latter.
I also released recently three government strategy documents from the early stages of the occupation, which set out exactly how Britain hoped to achieve the transfer of Iraq’s oilfields from the public sector to companies like BP and Shell. The documents’ authors knew very well that Iraqis would be appalled at their plans, and tied themselves in knots trying to square that knowledge with their idea of Britain’s “vital interest” in the future of Iraq’s oil and the public denials of any attempt to influence Iraqi oil policy. “We will wish to push the message on [foreign investment in the oilfields] to the Iraqis in private,” wrote one, “but it will require careful handling to avoid the impression that we are trying to push the Iraqis down one particular path.” In 2007, a Foreign Office civil servant told me that he believed a public consultation among Iraqis on the future of their oil should be avoided for risk of a “knee-jerk reaction” that rejected foreign company involvement.
The official account of the war still makes little sense. Weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. The removal of a dictator, only to back some of the most authoritarian politicians in post-Saddam Iraq. A country that threatened international security which eight years on, US officials are saying needs a continued foreign troop presence because it can’t even defend its own borders.
The determined exclusion of oil from the account makes the war impossible to fully understand. After all, oil provides 95% of Iraqi government revenue.
A September 2004 survey found nearly two thirds of Britons had lost trust in ministers since the Iraq war. Chilcott’s is the fourth public inquiry into the war. But if it does not examine strategic interests, it will fail to rebuild trust in government any more than the previous three.
Greg Muttitt is not a Liberal Democrat, but works with MPs of all parties on issues of public interest related to the Iraq war. Fuel on the Fire is published by the Bodley Head and available via Amazon.
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