History of the Iraq War, Part IX: Iraqi Resistance and Oil Unions

Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer’s tenure from 2003-4 included steps designed to facilitate the privatization of Iraqi oil. Initially, he permitted continued oil extraction by the Iraqi national oil companies while attempting to transfer control over auxiliary services (refining, shipping, marketing) to Halliburton (Schwartz, 2008, pp. 58-59).

This led to the first case of successful resistance to the occupation by Iraqi oil workers, on June 20, 2003, and dramatically illustrates the growing power that Iraqi unions, using both strikes and the threat of violence, had over the flow of oil and, hence, the American government. In the build-up to this event, workers at the Basra refinery in southern Iraq had not received their wages for two months. In response, that morning (Muttitt, 2011, p. 89):

"Around 100 workers arrived at Basra refinery and, rather than going to work, placed a crane across the access road in protest, preventing vehicles getting in or out. It did not take long for Coalition troops to arrive, and several armoured [sic] vehicles accompanied the next convoy of tankers. The soldiers threatened to shoot. Some workers tore off their shirts. ‘Shoot!’ they shouted, pointing at their chests. Others ducked under the tankers. At first their aim was simply to stop the trucks driving off, but as the tension escalated, some of them took out their cigarette lighters and threatened to set fire to the tankers. The military offered to negotiate. Throughout his discussions with a British general, the refinery director kept in touch with union leaders by radio. By noon the problem was resolved: salaries would be paid within 24 hours."

That day, membership in the union increased from 100 to 3,000, and grew to 23,000, or half of the national oil industry, within two years (Muttitt, 2011, p. 148). The offending contract transferring supporting services to Halliburton was voided. As if to reinforce the power of resistance centered on the oil industry, another strike at the Basra refinery in 2007 saw al-Maliki send in troops and armored vehicles, then withdraw them and accede to the unionists’ demands in face-to-face negotiations with the union leader (Blanchard, 2009, p. 14).

It is hard to imagine that the lessons of this showdown were lost to either American corporate boardrooms or the Iraqi resistance, who began attacks on oil infrastructure in the north. By June 2004, production of 1.6 million barrels of oil per day had dwindled to zero (Yergin, 2011, pp. 157-158), leading to the patrolling of pipelines by American snipers and attack helicopters (Klare, 2004, pp. 101-102).

Nevertheless, ‘counterinsurgency’ death squads and the machinations of the puppet Iraqi government gradually wore down union effectiveness. Having seen that generalized repression of oil workers did not work, the American military turned to assassinations of union and other Iraqi leaders. In a heroic series of essays collected by Baker, Ismael, & Ismael (2010), Iraqi exiles and sympathizers document the destruction of the intellectual class in Iraq. The authors plausibly argue that because of the sophistication of the attacks and the ‘failure’ of any of the perpetrators to be brought to justice, these attacks were likely orchestrated by American intelligence. The targeted killing of union leaders is another facet of the decapitation of the Iraqi state apparatus (Muttitt, 2011, pp. 234-235), one consistent with the death squads deployed against unions in other American spheres of influence, such as a Ford factory in Argentina (Klein, 2007, p. 108), as well as instilling reliance on foreign technicians to operate the Iraqi oil sector.

The efforts by Oil Minister Shahristani to crush Iraqi oil unions were no less subtle. He ordered the arrest of two prominent union leaders under Saddam’s 1987 law prohibiting union organization in the public sector, one law that Bremer was happy to keep on the books, and arrested another for sedition (Gentile, 2010). Shahristani’s favored tactic was to transfer union leaders (who were, after all, employed by the government) from their relatively peaceful sectors to areas of the country in the midst of a civil war (Muttitt, 2011, pp. 333-335).

Resistance from so-called ‘insurgents’ was a potent deterrent to the stability necessary for foreign investment and profits. However, large-scale violence of itself does not preclude resource extraction – and in fact is often the cause of violence. The wealth of multinational oil companies allows them to employ private mercenary forces, often in concert with co-opted national governments (Ferguson, 2005, p. 379). For foreign oil companies to operate in Iraq required not pacification, but rather security at oilfields and infrastructure often far removed from the centers of upheaval.


Baker, Raymond, Shereen Ismael and Tareq Ismael (ed.). 2010. Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered. Pluto Press.

Blanchard, Christopher M. 2009. “Iraq: Oil and Gas Legislation, Revenue Sharing and US Policy.” Congressional Research Service. 

Ferguson, James. 2005. “Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa.” American Anthropologist 107(3), pp. 377-382.

Gentile, Carmen. 2010. “Union Leaders Taken to Court for Oil Sector Dissent.” Iraq Oil Report. http://www.iraqoilreport.com/politics/oil-policy/union-leaders-taken-to-court-for-oil-sector-dissent-4698/. 

Klare, Michael. 2004. Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum. Holt Books. 

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Books. 

Muttitt, Greg. 2011. Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. Bodley Head: Random House.

Schwartz, Michael. 2008. War without End: The Iraq War in Context. Haymarket Books.

Yergin, Daniel. 2011. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. Penguin Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment