Oiling the Colonial Gears


Last week the U.S. postponed self-rule for Iraq in favor of an “interim authority.” Instead of running the country, these selected Iraqis will help the Americans rewrite the constitution, reorganize the educational system, and prepare for elections. The Baath Party leadership will be banned from top government jobs in the country.

Philip J. Carroll, who oversees the Iraqi oil operation for the Pentagon, more than hinted that Iraq might opt out of OPEC. “Historically, Iraq has had, let’s say, an irregular participation in OPEC quota systems,” he told The Washington Post last weekend. “They have from time to time, because of compelling national interest, elected to opt out of the quota system and pursue their own path. . . . They may elect to do that same thing. To me, it’s a very important national question.” That’s proconsul-speak for “Let’s bust OPEC.” Carroll also suggested that oil industry repair, supply, and service contracts negotiated under Saddam could be canceled or renegotiated. That opens the door for Bechtel, Fluor, and Halliburton’s Brown and Root to grab contracts previously held by France, China, and Russia.

Carroll spoke of the “best interests of the Iraqi people.” He himself is controversial because of his past job running Shell Oil and subsequently Fluor, a company that already has announced it wants in on contracts to rebuild the Iraqi oil industry. Carroll said he has told the Pentagon that he has substantial stock in both Shell and Fluor.

Should Iraq break with OPEC and boost production, it could flood the market, driving down prices. Such a course could hurt OPEC members, although Saudi Arabia has so much oil money it could sit out a glut for quite a while. Lower prices might be welcome in the U.S. during the presidential campaign, but it would almost surely threaten the profits of U.S. domestic producers, many of them in Texas and keen contributors to the Bush campaign.

Attacking OPEC is a frontal assault on attempts by oil-producing nations to gain a modicum of control over natural resources, whose exploitation led, in part, to their colonization in the first place. So, it’s back to Suez for the Arabs.

Where does all this leave us? In the beginning, the Iraq invasion was celebrated in the U.S. as a sort of mini-World War II liberation. The media saw similarities between the liberations of Paris and Baghdad. After the initial euphoria, there were comparisons between occupied Iraq and post-war Japan and Germany. This doesn’t work. Unlike Iraq, where Saddam has fled the country or is dead, Japan made an unconditional surrender and was allowed to retain its emperor. The situation in Germany also was different because the Germans had democratic institutions before Hitler. Unlike Iraq, Germany was glad to have the British, Americans, and French, rather than fall entirely under the Soviet army. Finally, Germany and Japan were both relatively homogenous societies, whereas Iraq has Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds jostling for their own territory. A more apt comparison would be with Yugoslavia, which had been held together by a strongman—Tito; after his death it came apart. Another possibility for Iraq would be being run by warlords, which is what happened in Afghanistan.

If nationalism is crushed in Iraq, the options are limited. There could be a religious state, but the occupying U.S. won’t stand for that. That leaves some form of innovative colonialism for Iraq and the region as a whole. The neocons have boasted that with Saddam gone, the U.S. could deal with Syria, then Iran, the royal family in Saudi Arabia, Qaddafi, and ultimately Egypt. In this way we could roll back the nationalism of the post-colonial world.

Meanwhile, the toll of occupation steadily mounts. Carol Bellamy, who heads the UN Children’s Fund, said in Iraq over the weekend that there has been a sharp rise in acute diarrhea among children. One-quarter of Iraqi children were malnourished before the war, and the numbers have risen since. This is because of broken-down sewage- and water-treatment facilities, she said. Parents are afraid to send children to school because of continuing violence, and no one talks of the many kids living in the street. The existence of such street children was not admitted under Saddam.

And then there are particular horrors: Villagers near a nuclear-storage site that supposedly had been secured by American troops became ill after they took barrels previously used to store yellow-cake uranium and used them to store water, milk, and yogurt.

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine

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