destruction - better to be bombed'

Beirut: Behind Iraq's power is oil says Robert Fisk. Yet that element is unmentioned in this crisis: why?
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The Independent Online
AT HIS first press conference after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, I asked General Norman Schwarzkopf, the supreme commander in the Gulf, when he was going to tell his troops that any future war would be about oil. If I thought that the conflict was about oil, he replied, I should look for another job. "This is not about oil," he said. "This is about rape. In fact, it's about gang-rape."

Well, when there was a conflict about real gang-rape - in Bosnia - the United States did not want to intervene. And Kuwait did turn out to be about oil. We finished the war with the Kuwaiti oilfields burning, breathing oil clouds, literally coated in the stuff. Now, yet again, the US is threatening a war with Iraq. And once more, nobody - not a single Western statesman - is talking about oil.

Why not? Iraq is one of the world's wealthiest oil states. Before 1990 it was producing 3.2 million barrels a day (mbd) of oil. Today, the entire UN sanctions programme against Iraq is based upon the sale of Iraqi oil; Iraq can sell $1bn (pounds 615m) of it every three months, for renewable six- month periods, to buy food and medicine. That's just 600,000 barrels a day. What would happen if sanctions ended? Could Saddam - would Saddam - take his revenge on Kuwait by artificially lowering the price of oil?

Arab oil experts have their suspicions. The "moamarer" - the "plot" - is a ubiquitous element in Arab politics, but it is worth noting what Arab economists are asking. If Saddam was "de-isolated" - if full compliance with UN resolutions was granted and sanctions lifted - would Saddam undercut the market? Currently, oil sells at between $13.25 and $14 a barrel. "Saddam could sell at $9 a barrel, just to bring the price down," an Arab statistician with pro-Iranian leanings commented last week. "Do you realise what that would mean? It would devalue British North Sea oil, under- mine American oil production and - more important - it would destroy the huge profits the United States stands to gain from its massive investment in Caucasian oil production, especially in Azerbaijan. So what incentive do the Americans have to lift sanctions and let Saddam off the hook?"

It is a powerful argument, all the more ironic because Saddam's real reason for invading Kuwait is believed by many Arabs to be linked to Kuwait's 1990 decision to lower the price of oil and bankrupt Iraq's economy after its eight-year war with Iran. The suspicion that oil prices have a role in Washington's threat to bombard Iraq is only increased by the UN's refusal to allow any income from the sale of Iraqi crude to be used to repair and maintain the country's oil wells and pumping stations.

The UN wants Iraq to continue exporting oil: indeed, on Friday, the Security Council voted to allow Baghdad to more than double the amount it can sell to buy food and medicine.Yet it has totally neglected the Iraqis' requests to restore their pumping capacity by renovating the machinery in Iraq's war-damaged fields. One Iraqi estimate is that at least $600,000 will have to be spent on oil facility repairs to bring export levels to 1.6mbd.

Under the terms of the UN's oil-for-food programme, Iraq has to pay 30 per cent of its sales to Kuwait in war reparations and another 5 per cent to cover the costs of UN operations in the country. Up to 15 per cent has to go to Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, which were semi-autonomous but which - since last year's crushing of the CIA-sponsored operations in the north - now fall largely under Saddam's control. Less than half the total income can be used to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi population. And, as UN officials themselves point out, the present programme fails to meet the humanitarian needs of Iraq's 22 million population - which has increased by four million since the 1991 Gulf war.

Thus UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's visit to Saddam Hussein this weekend involves a discussion of what Iraq needs to increase its oil production capacity. The Iraqis were appalled to discover that Mr Annan's original proposal for an expanded oil-for-food plan included no money for oil facility repairs. Under French pressure, a new proposal - which the US news agency, Associated Press, has seen - does include funds for the restoration of oil field machinery. Under the second phase of Iraqi exports monitored by the UN, Iraq could sell 121mb of oil, 25mb of which were bought by France and 59mb - around 40 per cent - by Russia; which provides a good reason for Russia to warn of world calamity in the event of further military attacks by the US and Britain.

But oil - the very reason for Iraq's power in the Middle East - remains the unspoken element in the current crisis. Most Arabs, of course, realise that the Iraqi regime is untrustworthy and aggressive. But they also know that Iraq possesses a unique blessing: it is the only Middle East nation which has both water and oil. The Arab Gulf states have oil but no rivers. The Arab nations with rivers possess little or no oil. But Iraq has both - and is therefore a potential paradise, containing both fertility and wealth. And this is the country that the West once again is preparing to attack. For the Arabs, the long-term implications are obvious: the West wants to keep its potentially richest nation in penury.

These arguments ignore the issues of arms inspection and the threat that Iraq - according to Washington - "poses to its neighbours". The odd thing is that the neighbours supposedly threatened by Saddam do not - with the exception of Kuwait - want to join President Clinton's latest crusade. With feelings of betrayal, caused by the US's refusal to talk tough to Israel in the face of a dead Middle East "peace process" and its equally strong desire to use force against Iraq, the Arabs are in no mood to support an Anglo-American adventure in what was once called Mesopotamia.

Neither do they have any idea what Washington will do if, bombed yet again, Saddam Hussein refuses to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on arms inspections. On Wednesday night, Lebanese journalists put this question to the US ambassador to Lebanon, Richard Jones. "I'm not going to play that game," Mr Jones replied. "This is a question for somebody much more highly paid than I am." Which does not say much for the salary of US ambassadors in the Middle East.