History of the Iraq War, Part VIII: Invasion and Initial Steps to Oil Privatization

The American oil industry was front and center in planning to ‘reconstruct’ the Iraqi oil industry after the war. Former Shell CEO Philip Carroll was brought on board in 2002 and encouraged planners to craft an orderly transition of power over the Iraqi oil sector. In early 2003, before the invasion, he committed to heading American efforts at the nominally Iraqi oil ministry (Yergin, 2011, p. 141) and was joined by a number of other American corporate oil officers (Juhasz, 2008, p. 3460.

Yet the decision to go to war might not have been as clear-cut as some commentators have suggested. Within the American oil industry, there was some tactical debate over the wisdom of the invasion. Make no mistake about it, oil executives care about profits – not the law, weapons of mass destruction, protect human rights, or any other obfuscation. ExxonMobil chief Lee Raymond pushed the Bush administration for stability conducive to investment (Coll, 2012, p. 248). A related concern was the status of Iraqi oil revenues: oil giants wanted control over reserves, an important metric for investors, while the current scheme ran oil revenues through UN-administered accounts to pay for Kuwaiti reparations and the Oil-for-Food Program (Coll, 2012, p. 564). As BP CEO Sir John Browne put it (Yergin, 2011, p. 147):

"You know what I’ll say to the first person in our company who comes to us with a proposal to invest a billion dollars in Iraq? I’ll say, ‘Tell us about the legal system, tell us about the political system. Tell us about the economic system and about the contractual and fiscal systems, and tell us about arbitration. And tell us about security, and tell us about the evolution of the political system. Tell us about all those things, and then we’ll talk about whether we’re going to invest or not.’"

These debates were moot once the bombs started falling and protection of oil facilities became a primary focus of American military force. Prior to the invasion, “US airships patrolled the pipelines and other vulnerable installations to prevent sabotage” (Schwartz, 2008, p. 51), while US Marines seized control of the Rumaila oil field in southern Iraq less than 24 hours into the invasion (Klare, 2004, pp. 100-101). At the onset of the 2003 invasion, while the US military was unleashing a terrorist bombing of the peaceful city of Baghdad and allowing Iraq’s social structure, including hospitals, schools, ministries, and libraries, to be burned and torn to shreds, and even did nothing to prevent looting of weapons depots, a nuclear research laboratory and a former chemical weapons complex (Muttitt, 2011, p. 53), full protection was given to “the Oil Ministry, oil facilities, and oil infrastructure” (Juhasz, 2008, p. 351).  If the ultimate goal was to ensure viability of the oil sector, selective protection of these buildings and pipelines while the country crumbled to ashes around it was shortsighted. The oil sector relied on the function of the larger economy, such as electricity, water, computers, skilled workers, and even a police force that Saddam’s government had set up just for the industry (Yergin, 2011, p. 155).

After the fall of Baghdad, instead of allowing competent Iraqi technocrats to continue their work, “representatives of US oil companies ran Iraq’s oil ministry immediately following the invasion and held high-level oversight roles thereafter. Executives of ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP each took a turn guiding Iraq’s oil industry” (Juhasz, 2008, p. 346). Interestingly, if ConocoPhillips is replaced with Total, this is the same oligopoly that controlled Iraq’s oil after World War I (Baker, Ismael, & Ismael, 2010, p. 20). Despite these clear signals of American designs, the oil sector was not privatized for many years, and then, only partially.

It was not for lack of effort that oil was not privatized as quickly as the rest of the country’s industries, a conundrum lost on most commentators sympathetic to the ‘War for Oil’ theory. Juhasz (2008, pp. 344, 352-353), Schwartz (2008, pp. 52, 59-60) and Klare (2004, pp. 103-105) are all thorough scholars who nevertheless make the confused argument that Iraqi oil was not handed out to Western oil companies for three interconnected reasons: 1) Iraqi resistance, both violent and non-; 2) it is illegal under the Hague Conventions for an occupying government to drastically change the laws of the occupied country; 3) immediate privatization would risk raising the ire of the Iraqi public.  The second argument is clearly disingenuous, as the entire war, along with Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer’s economic laws, are themselves violations of international law (Falk, 2008), a fact that presumably will not cause oil profiteers to lose sleep. Since these authors’ books were published, dozens of contracts have been signed, all illegal under a still-in-force 1967 law that requires parliamentary approval of any oil contracts (O’Sullivan, 2011, p. 8). The third argument fails to pass scrutiny in light of the US-led destruction of Iraq. Indeed, “shock and awe” was designed to terrify the population!


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

Coll, Steve. 2012. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. Penguin Press.

Falk, Richard. The Costs of War: International Law, the UN, and World Order after Iraq. Routledge. 2008.

Juhasz, Antonia. 2008. The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry – and What We Must Do to Stop It. Harper.

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

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

O’Sullivan, Meghan. 2011. “Iraqi Politics and Implications for Oil and Energy.” Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series.

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.

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