Iraq: Howard government admits what we all knew

July 14, 2007

"Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson has admitted that securing oil supplies is a key factor behind the presence of Australian troops in Iraq." This was how the BBC reported Nelson's July 5 comments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the release of a review of Australia's "defence strategy".

"The defence update we're releasing today sets out many priorities for Australia's defence and security, and resource security is one of them", Nelson told the ABC. "Obviously the Middle East itself, not only Iraq, but the entire region is an important supplier of energy, oil in particular, to the rest of the world. Australians and all of us need to think what would happen if there were a premature withdrawal from Iraq."

Nelson's comments were widely reported by media organisations in the US and Britain, as they, along with Australia, formed the core of the "coalition of the willing" that invaded Iraq in March 2003.

The BBC reported that Nelson's remarks were "thought to be the first time the Australian government has admitted any link between troop deployment in Iraq and securing energy resources".

However, PM John Howard was quick to counteract Nelson's comments. "We didn't go there because of oil and we don't remain there because of oil", Howard told Sydney radio station 2GB the next day, adding: "A lot of oil comes from the Middle East — we all know that — but the reason we remain there is that we want to give the people of Iraq a possibility of embracing democracy."

Howard argued that it was "stretching it a bit" to conclude that Australia's Iraq involvement was motivated by the goal of securing oil supplies. Later that day, Nelson fell back into line with Howard's claim that Canberra's participation in the US-led invasion and occupation was about bringing "democracy" to the Iraqi people.

Nelson made his remarks only hours before Howard delivered a major foreign policy speech in which the PM argued that Canberra had to support the efforts of the US rulers to ensure "energy security" amid growing "great power competition" in the Middle East. "Our major ally and our most important economic partners have crucial interests there", Howard said.

Demonstrating political loyalty to its imperialist ally in Washington is, as Howard has previously acknowledged, the fundamental reason why Canberra participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq. Australia currently has around 1600 military personnel assigned to the US-led counterinsurgency war in Iraq, with 540 combat troops deployed in Iraq itself.

In a July 6 interview with ABC TV's Lateline, Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University and former director of the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, attempted to explain why Howard's argument that supporting the US ruling elite's aim of ensuring "energy security" in the Middle East — a position White endorsed — has nothing to do with Iraq's oil resources.

White said: "One of the ways of seeing your way through this one is to remember that oil, of course, has always been fundamental to Australia's and the West's interests in the Middle East. If it wasn't for the oil that comes from the [Persian] Gulf, we wouldn't take much interest in that part of the world. But governments have steered clear of identifying that as a key issue because it's so easy to slide from that general proposition to the specific accusation we invaded Iraq in order to seize its oil.

"For that reason the Bush administration and the Howard government have been careful about not citing the oil issue. I think Nelson made a mistake stumbling into this one."

Washington's publicly declared plan for ensuring the "security" of Iraq's huge and cheap oil resources, which were nationalised by Iraqi's nationalist Baathist regime in 1972, is to have them privatised, allowing the big US and British oil corporations — ExxonMobil, Chevron (Caltex), Conoco, Shell and BP — to take over.

Achieving this was not possible before the country was invaded and occupied by tens of thousands of US and other allied foreign troops and a puppet Iraq government was installed in place of the Baathist regime.

Securing US corporate control over Iraq's oil resources has been a policy goal of the Bush administration took office in January 2001.

In 1999, Dick Cheney — then CEO of the Halliburton oil services company, but US President George Bush's vice-president since 2001 — told the London-based Institute of Petroleum Engineers that, when it came to making profits out of the oil business, "the Middle East, with two-thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies".

Cheney complained that too much of the Middle East's oil resources were in local governments' hands, rather than those of "international oil companies".

Within weeks of his January 2001 inauguration as US president, Bush appointed Cheney to head up a secretive energy task force known as the National Energy Policy Development Group.

In February 2004, the New Yorker magazine reported that it had obtained a previously undisclosed February 3, 2001, National Security Council document that had directed NSC staff to cooperate fully with Cheney's energy task force "as it considered the 'melding' of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: 'the review of operational policies towards rogue states', such as Iraq, and 'actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields'".

The November 15, 2005, Washington Post reported that it had obtained documents detailing how executives from major US oil corporations, including ExxonMobil and Conoco, as well as the US subsidiaries of Shell and BP, met with Cheney task force members while they were developing policy recommendations, something these executives had previously denied in congressional testimony.

The task force recommended that the Bush administration launch a drive to get Middle Eastern countries "to open up areas of their energy sectors to foreign investment".

In October 2001, only months after Cheney's task force completed its work, the US State Department established a working group on oil and energy, as part of its Future of Iraq Project. It brought together influential Iraqi exiles, US government officials, and international oil consultants to draw up policy plans for a US-installed government in Iraq.

After the US-British-Australian invasion of Iraq, several Iraqi members of the group became leading figures in Washington's puppet Iraqi government, which earlier this year approved a draft oil law that opens the way for most of Iraqi's oil resources to be acquired by foreign oil corporations.

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