February 23rd 2003 saw one of the biggest protests take place in British history. This was of course the protest against the invasion of Iraq by Tony Blair’s government. We can have a debate about the effectiveness of demonstrations in light of the Iraq war another time, needless to say however, the protest showed the lack of support for the invasion throughout the country. On that day, millions held banners and signs which read ‘no blood for oil’. These people rightfully saw corporate interests, not stopping terrorism or finding Weapons of Mass Destruction, as the primary motivation for the attack. Since then, Tony Blair has dismissed the theory that Iraq was a war for oil as an ‘absurd conspiracy theory’, and many well-known media outlets have joined him in their condemnation of the protesters. However, is it really so absurd to suggest, that resources and those that profit from their exploitation may be a large part of the motive for war? Surely with any government action that is as widely opposed by the general public as this one, we should be asking some serious questions about whether it is right or not. By the standards of an official inquiry, Chilcot’s was rightfully damning of a government that took the country to war without legal or moral justification. Consequentially, Tony Blair has already been forced to claim responsibility for the war, and Jeremy Corbyn has officially apologised on behalf of the Labour Party, to veterans and their families. However, compared to the evidence Chillcot actually had, his conclusions were mild. Indeed, despite acknowledging that there is no compelling evidence that Iraq had weapons of Mass Destruction, chillcot failed to address in his report how other political and economic motivations affected decisions.
A War for Oil
A year after the 2003 demonstration, an international opinion poll conducted by the US think tank, Pew Research Centre, asked sample populations from the US, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and Jordan, about the so called ‘war on terrorism’ (Note at this point that the survey was not specifically about Iraq but the western foreign policy following 9/11). The majority of people in all but the US and Britain, thought that it was intended to control Middle East Oil.
When it comes to the Iraq war, they were right. Evidence released with the report shows that unequivocally using Iraq oil to boost British energy supplies was a central pre-war aim. In fact, A February 2002 Cabinet office paper described the UK’s objective as ‘preserving peace and security 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, show two three mostly consistent aims: transfer the oil sector from public ownership to multinationals, and ensure that BP and shell get a large share, and to make Iraq an advocate of low oil prices within OPEC. The summary of the Chilcot report does briefly mention this once, when repeating a claim by the then Iraq envoy Jeremy Greenstock that under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) the UK had less influence over oil then the US. This is typical statement for Greenstock to make, as on his return from Iraq he took up a job at BP. In most cases, a civil service committee reviews these sorts of appointments in order to prevent conflicts of interests and in this case ordered Greenstock to do no Iraq business for six months. Despite this, within three months of this order he was lobbying interim Prime Minister Allawi on behalf of BP. people who originally worked at oil companies got deals with the UK government as well. Terry Adams, a former head of BP Azerbaijan, was funded by the UK government to work on oil issues under the CPA, and then in 2004, to begin drafting new Iraq oil policy under Allawi. He even wrote a ‘code of practice’ for the Iraq oil ministry, which called for multinational companies to play a major role in developing Iraq’s oil and for the ministry’s policies to be compatible with specifically for those of BP.
One thing that clearly stands out from these examples and from reading the factual material in section 10.3 of the Chilcot report, is that policy on Iraq oil was consistently made ‘working closely’ or ‘In close contact’ with BP and shell. Indeed, the book Fuel on the Fire by Greg Muttitt reveals that, six months before the war actually began, the UK government held at least five secretive meetings with heads of BP and Shell. These were obviously denied at the time, but the Chilcot report notes three of these specifically, also mentioning one meeting in November 2002 where the minutes were forwarded to Blair himself. The Inquiry also noted many more examples of meetings with oil companies that occurred throughout the occupation. What is remarkable about Chilcot’s reporting on the oil issue is that, while this damning evidence is buried deep in this 2.6 million word report and can be found with enough digging, not one of the corporate officials involved in this complex web of secret meetings, deals and negotiations was called by Chilcot to give evidence. Here are a number of possibilities for why this might be the case, maybe Chilcot does not want to present a too damning case against Tony Blair and the Iraq war? Maybe he does not consider it important to interview some of the most important people involved in the invasion of Iraq? Either way, this is an extremely misguided thing to do when reporting on the political event of the century. What is important is that such judgements are noticed and held to account.
Profiting From War
The UN gave the US and UK governments the authority to spend Iraqi oil revenue on the reconstruction of the country infustructure. However, it did not anticipate or give their ruling to US and UK companies’ receiving 85 percent of the value of all contracts worth $5 million or more. Iraqi firms however received just two percent of those oil funds which, unsurprisingly, were paid for with Iraqi oil funds. In fact, shortly before the war, Patricia Hewitt, as trade and industry secretary, lobbied the US not for more funds to go to the Iraqis, but to go to British firms. The Chilcot report also revealed that by June 2003, foreign secretary Jack Straw was urging Blair to lobby 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 about $2.6 million US dollars. This use of war in order to allow firms to expand their business was a striking characteristic of the Iraq war. Some of the companies that profited included Aegis, Olive Group, Armour Group, Control Risks and Janusian. Private contracts were let for ridiculous amounts of money as millions was pumped into the war industry.
These facts are justly documented in the Chilcot report, but they are not investigated or even treated as significant. Neither Jack Straw nor Patricia Hewitt were scrutinised about their role in lobbying on behalf of British Business. This is despite the fact that the role of private companies is important context for understanding how the war played out. It is absolutely clear that the US and the 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 economy based on reconstruction, left education and welfare systems, already weak after the combined effects of sanctions and war, decimated. Not only is profiting from war in this way completely immoral, but it is illegal. So is attempting to reconstruct an economy in favour of the Washington consensus neoliberal policy prescriptions. A memo from the attorney general to Tony Blair on 26th march 2003, which was put before the Chilcot inquiry as evidence, made this absolutely clear. Neither Tony Blair, nor Hillary Benn, the then international development secretary, can possibly claim that they did not know that the occupation was conducted illegally. Again, Chilcot did not question either of them on this.
For the Iraqi people the war never exactly ended. As Iraq body count has pointed out, the number of deaths every month since the 2003 invasion has never fallen beneath 250. The highest monthly total was 4,083 in 2014. According to official figures from the UN, by 2007 at least 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 below the poverty line. Private companies are by no means free from guilt either. Private armies have been 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 that 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 families of the 179 British war dead, to know about the reasons for going to war. However, the rights of the families’ of the unknown total of British Private military personnel who were killed went without mention.
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 went through the roof. Two western oil companies were investigated for giving or receiving bribes. Contractors are heavily overcharging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind, as the Iraqi government pays for it. All the while, in order to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and leaders arrested and prosecuted. That is just in the oil rich part of the country. Corruption is rife throughout Iraq, and it is shameful that Chilcot has failed to investigate most of it.
If it was lack of concern that led to Chilcot drawing the conclusions that he did from the inquiry, then it is a distinctly pro 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 represents an extremely market fundamentalist ideology, prevalent in all liberal democracies: that the private sector has a right to intellectual property. Contrary to what we were led to believe, the Iraq inquiry did not take a ‘neutral’ stance on the issue. It made a clear decision to allow the ‘private’ world of corporate capital to remain private and the intimate relationship between government and big business that allowed the war to happen in the first place, to remain hidden.