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The Agony Of Iraq

By John Scales Avery

23 September, 2014

There is a close relationship between petroleum and war. James A. Paul, Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum, has described this relationship very clearly in the following words:

“Modern warfare particularly depends on oil, because virtually all weapons systems rely on oil-based fuel - tanks, trucks, armored vehicles, self-propelled artillery pieces, airplanes, and naval ships. For this reason, the governments and general staffs of powerful nations seek to ensure a steady supply of oil during wartime, to fuel oil-hungry military forces in far-flung operational theaters.”

“Just as governments like the US and UK need oil companies to secure fuel for their global war-making capacity, so the oil companies need their governments to secure control over global oilfields and transportation routes. It is no accident, then, that the world's largest oil companies are located in the world's most powerful countries.”

“Almost all of the world's oil-producing countries have suffered abusive, corrupt and undemocratic governments and an absence of durable development. Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Angola, Colombia, Venezuela, Kuwait, Mexico, Algeria - these and many other oil producers have a sad record, which includes dictatorships installed from abroad,bloody coups engineered by foreign intelligence services, militariization of government and intolerant right-wing nationalism.”

Iraq, in particular, has been the scene of a number of wars motivated by the West's thirst for oil. During World War I, 1914-1918, the British captured the area (then known as Mesopotamia) from the Ottoman Empire after four years of bloody fighting. Although Lord Curzon (a member of the British War Cabinet who became Foreign Minister immediately after the war) denied that the British conquest of Mesopotamia was motivated by oil, there is ample evidence that British policy was indeed motivated by a desire for control of the region's petroleum. For example, Curzon's Cabnet colleague Sir Maurice Hankey stated in a private letter that oil was “a first-class war aim”. Furthermore, British forces continued to fight after the signing of the Murdos Armistice.

In this way, they seized Mosul, the capital of a major oil-producing region, thus frustrating the plans of the French, who had been promised the area earlier in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. Lord Curzon was well aware of the military importance of oil, and following the end of the First World War he remarked: “The Allied cause has floated to victory on a wave of oil”.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement essentially took away from the Arabs the autonomy that they had been promised if they fought on the side of the Allies against the Turks. Today this secret double-cross continues to be a great source of bitterness.



During the period between 1918 and 1930, fierce Iraqi resistance to the occupation was crushed by the British, who used poison gas, airplanes, incendiary bombs, and mobile armored cars, together with forces drawn from the Indian Army. Winston Churchill, who was Colonial Secretary at the time, regarded the conflict in Iraq as an important test of modern military-colonial methods.

An article in The Guardian explains that “Churchill was particularly keen on chemical weapons, suggesting that they be used 'against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment ¡K I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes...'” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/apr/19/iraq.arts

In 1932, Britain granted nominal independence to Iraq, but kept large military forces in the country and maintained control of it through indirect methods. In 1941, however, it seemed likely that Germany might try to capture the Iraqi oilfields, and therefore the British again seized direct political power in Iraq by means of military force. It was not only Germany that Britain feared, but also US attempts to gain access to Iraqi oil.

The British fear of US interest in Iraqi oil was soon confirmed by events. In 1963 the US secretly backed a military coup in Iraq that brought Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party to power.4 In 1979 the western-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown, and the United States regarded the fundamentalist Shi'ite regime that replaced him as a threat to supplies of oil from Saudi Arabia.

Washington saw Saddam's Iraq as a bulwark against the militant Shi'ite extremism of Iran that was threatening oil supplies from pro-American states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In 1980, encouraged to do so by the fact that Iran had lost its US backing, Saddam Hussein's government attacked Iran. This was the start of an extremely bloody and destructive war that lasted for eight years, inflicting almost a million casualties on the two nations. Iraq used both mustard gas and the nerve gases Tabun and Sarin against Iran, in violation of the Geneva Protocol.

Both the United States and Britain helped Saddam Hussein's government to obtain chemical weapons. A chemical plant, called Falluja 2, was built by Britain in 1985, and this plant was used to produce mustard gas and nerve gas. Also, according to the Riegel Report to the US Senate, May 25, (1994), the Reagan Administration turned a blind eye to the export of chemical weapon precursors to Iraq, as well as anthrax and plague cultures that could be used as the basis for biological weapons. According to the Riegel Report, “records available from the supplier for the period 1985 until the present show that during this time, pathogenic (meaning disease producing) and toxigenic (meaning poisonous), and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq perusant to application and licensing by the US Department of Commerce.”

In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld, Reagan's newly appointed Middle East Envoy, visited Saddam Hussein to assure him of America's continuing friendship, despite Iraqi use of poison gas. When (in 1988) Hussein went so far as to use poison gas against civilian citizens of his own country in the Kurdish village of Halabja, the United States worked to prevent international condemnation of the act. Indeed US support for Saddam was so unconditional that he obtained the false impression that he had a free hand to do whatever he liked in the region.

On July 25, 1990, US Ambassador April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein to discuss oil prices and how to improve US-Iraq relations. According to the transcript of the meeting, Ms Galspie assured Saddam that the US “had no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” She then left on vacation. Mistaking this conversation for a green light, Saddam invaded Kuwait eight days later.

By invading Kuwait, Hussein severely worried western oil companies and governments, since Saudi Arabia might be next in line. As George Bush senior said in 1990, at the time of the Gulf War, “Our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would all suffer if control of the world's great oil reserves fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein.”

On August 6, 1990, the UN Security Council imposed comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq with the aim of forcing Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State James A. Baker III used arm-twisting methods in the Security Council to line up votes for UN military action against Iraq. In Baker's own words, he undertook the process of “cajoling, extracting, threatening and occasionally buying votes”.

On November 29, 1990, the Council passed Resolution 678, authorizing the use of “all necessary means” (by implication also military means) to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. There was nothing at all wrong with this, since the Security Council had been set up by the UN Charter to prevent states from invading their neighbors. However, one can ask whether the response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait would have been so wholehearted if oil had not been involved.

There is much that can be criticized in the way that the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was carried out. Besides military targets, the US and its allies bombed electrical generation facilities with the aim of creating postwar leverage over Iraq. The electrical generating plants would have to be rebuilt with the help of foreign technical assistance, and this help could be traded for postwar compliance. In the meantime, hospitals and water-purification plants were without electricity. Also, during the Gulf War, a large number of projectiles made of depleted uranium were fired by allied planes and tanks. The result was a sharp increase in cancer in Iraq.

Finally, both Shi'ites and Kurds were encouraged by the Allies to rebel against Saddam Hussein's government, but were later abandoned by the allies and slaughtered by Saddam.

The most terrible misuse of power, however, was the US and UK insistence the sanctions against Iraq should remain in place after the end of the Gulf War. These two countries used their veto power in the Security Council to prevent the removal of the sanctions. Their motive seems to have been the hope that the economic and psychological impact would provoke the Iraqi people to revolt against Saddam. However that brutal dictator remained firmly in place, supported by universal fear of his police and by massive propaganda. The effect of the sanctions was to produce more than half a million deaths of children under five years of age, as is documented by UNICEF data. The total number of deaths that the sanctions produced among Iraqi civilians probably exceeded a million, if older children and adults are included.

Ramsey Clark, who studied the effects of the sanctions in Iraq from 1991 onwards, wrote to the Security Council that most of the deaths “are from the effects of malnutrition including marasmas and kwashiorkor, wasting or emaciation which has reached twelve per cent of all children, stunted growth which affects twenty-eight per cent, diarrhea, dehydration from bad water or food, which is ordinarily easily controlled and cured, common communicable diseases preventable by vaccinations, and epidemics from deteriorating sanitary conditions. There are no deaths crueler than these. They are suffering slowly, helplessly, without simple remedial medication, without simple sedation to relieve pain, without mercy. In discussing Iraq, we mentioned oil as a motivation for western interest.

Similar considerations hold also for Afghanistan. US-controlled oil companies have long had plans for an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan, passing through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea, as well as plans for a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The September 11 terrorist attacks resulted in a spontaneous worldwide outpouring of sympathy for the United States, and within the US, patriotic support of President George W. Bush at a time of national crisis. Bush's response to the attacks seems to have been to inquire from his advisors whether he was now free to invade Iraq. According to former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, Bush was “obsessed” with Iraq as his principal target after 9/11.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was a guest at a private White House dinner nine days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK Ambassador to Washington, was also present at the dinner. According to Meyer, Blair said to Bush that they must not get distracted from their main goal - dealing with the Taliban and al-Quaeda in Afghanistan, and Bush replied: “I agree with you Tony. We must deal with this first. But when we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq.” Faced with the prospect of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair did not protest, according to Meyer.

During the summer of 2002, Bush and Blair discussed Iraq by telephone. A senior official from Vice-President Dick Cheney's office who read the transcript of the call is quoted by the magazine Vanity Fair as saying: “The way it read was that come what may, Saddam was going to go; they said that they were going forward, they were going to take out the regime, and they were doing the right thing. Blair did not need any convincing. There was no ‘Come on, Tony, we've got to get you on board'. I remember reading it and then thinking, ‘OK, now I know what we're going to be doing for the next year.'” See the following link, especially General Wesley Clark's 9-minute speech:


On June 1, 2002, Bush announced a new US policy which not only totally violated all precedents in American foreign policy but also undermined the United Nations Charter and international law6 . Speaking at the graduation ceremony of the US Military Academy at West Point he asserted that the United States had the right to initiate a preemptive war against any country that might in the future become a danger to the United States. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize,” he said, “we will have waited too long.” He indicated that 60 countries might fall into this category, roughly a third of the nations of the world.

The assertion that the United States, or any other country, has the right to initiate preemptive wars specifically violates Chapter 1, Articles 2.3 and 2.4, of the United Nations Charter. These require that “All members shall settle their disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace, security and justice are not endangered”, and that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” The UN Charter allows a nation that is actually under attack to defend itself, but only until the Security Council has had time to act.

Bush's principle of preemptive war was promptly condemned by the Catholic Church. Senior Vatican officials pointed to the Catholic teaching that “preventive” war is unjustifiable, and Archbishop Renato Martino, prefect of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, stated firmly that “unilateralism is not acceptable”.

However, in the United States, the shocking content of Bush's West Point address was not fully debated. The speech was delivered only a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the US supported whatever exceptional measures its President thought might be necessary for the sake of national security. American citizens, worried by the phenomenon of terrorism, did not fully appreciate that the principle of preemptive war could justify almost any aggression, and that in the long run, if practiced by all countries, it would undermine the security of the United States as well as that of the entire world.

During the spring of 2003, our television and newspapers presented us with the spectacle of an attack by two technologically superior powers on a much less industrialized nation, a nation with an ancient and beautiful culture. The ensuing war was one-sided. Missiles guided by laser beams and signals from space satellites were more than a match for less sophisticated weapons. Speeches were made to justify the attack. It was said to be needed because of weapons of mass destruction (some countries are allowed to have them, others not). It was said to be necessary to get rid of a cruel dictator (whom the attacking powers had previously supported and armed). But the suspicion remained that the attack was resource-motivated. It was about oil, or at least largely about oil. The war on Iraq was also designed to destroy a feared enemy of Israel.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, Maidread Corrigan Maguire estimates that US and UK actions between 1990 and 2012 killed 3.3 million people, including 750,000 children: https://www.transcend.org/tms/2014/09/usauk-committed-genocide-against-iraq-people/

Against the historical background discussed in this article, we can appreciate the enormous hypocrisy of Obama's claim that the current bombing of Iraq is “humanitarian”.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com







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