Heading South


With Iraqi oil firmly under his control, the president can now turn to Venezuela and Hugo Chávez, who the Bush administration says is out to make himself into a new Simón Bolívar. A recent report called “Crude Designs,” by a British group, says Western oil companies are poised to take control of Iraqi oil after next month’s election. The Iraqis will be left with 17 out of some 80 oil fields.

Controlling Iraqi oil will help the U.S. in dominating—at least for a little while longer—world oil. But our overall goal is to become less dependent on the Middle East and other faraway sources and develop petroleum resources nearer to home. Venezuela is a prime target since it not only has a lot of oil, but over the years has placidly allowed us to take what we want.

George W. Bush’s dislike of Chávez is no secret, and the Venezuelan leader’s recent move to provide American poor in New York and Boston with cheap oil comes as a slap in the face for both Bush and the international industry. The Iraq war was meant to not only give the U.S. access to Iraqi oil, but also to insert direct U.S. involvement in the dealings of OPEC. Now Venezuela, a leading OPEC member, is mounting a counterattack in U.S. markets. More than that, Chávez is widening the scope of his influence, making a pipeline deal with Argentina, proffering oil to Cuba, discussing ventures in Nicaragua (where Daniel Ortega is looking to regain power), and discussing joint deals with the Chinese. Some are beginning to think of him as a new Bolívar, the hero who liberated much of Latin America from Spain.

Congress has already beaten back one attempt by the Chinese to buy Unocal and enter the U.S. market. The U.S. is warily watching Chinese moves to gain control over Canada’s oil sands, a future source of oil. China, now the second-largest oil consumer in the world (the U.S. is first), is expanding its fuel purchases as its economy grows. It is not inconceivable that China will end up threatening U.S. oil hegemony in Latin America. China is becoming a significant factor in American politics; it already owns substantial chunks of the ballooning U.S. debt. And while we have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chinese have been grabbing more Caspian Sea oil and laying plans for a gas pipeline to run from Turkmenistan, which has the biggest pool of natural gas anywhere in the world, to Shanghai.

With all this going on, Bush must be tempted to end his second term in a blaze of glory by defending the Monroe Doctrine and taking out Chávez in the name of national security—especially because he could tell Americans who are angry at higher and higher fuel prices that getting rid of Chávez is in the national interest.

Unintelligent design

It turns out that 10 days after 9-11, Bush got a super-secret briefing telling him there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant evidence that Saddam collaborated with Al Qaeda. Indeed, the intelligence community suggested there were signs Saddam might have considered infiltrating his own agents into Al Qaeda. Saddam is a secularist with antipathy to revolutionary Islamic politics. This latest information comes from Murray Waas in the National Journal. The administration has refused to give Congress the President’s Daily Brief document containing this information.

The briefing was subsequently expanded and given to other key government officials, including Cheney and Rumsfeld. This latest report is startling because on 9-11 itself, public accounts make clear that Rumsfeld, as secretary of defense, second to the president in the command chain defending the nation, turned aside intelligence given him by then CIA chief George Tenet, among others, telling him the attack came from Al Qaeda. That same day Rumsfeld was scribbling notes about attacking Saddam, and a few hours later he was at the White House arguing for an attack on Iraq. Neither Bush nor Cheney would talk to the 9-11 Commission about events on that day except in a joint off-the-record conversation. The commission heard Rumsfeld but without asking him any hard questions.

Shake and bake

As a news story, revelations that white phosphorus was used in the November 2004 battle for Falluja amounted to a momentary blip on the screen.

Brought to light by an Italian documentary, the best description of “WP” in the battle appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of the army’s Field Artillery magazine, in which a captain, first lieutenant, and sergeant wrote, “WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive]. We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out.”

WP comes in shells or grenades, and it burns rather than explodes. According to one marine with combat experience in Iraq, “I was told you can use it for disabling gear [like radios or Humvees] you may have to leave behind but don’t want the enemy to get. It’s also used for illumination and in signaling flares, and as always, you can use it against people if need be,” adding, “it’s difficult to highlight anything that would harm civilians unnecessarily, because civilians are always harmed unnecessarily in wars.”

U.S. statements about WP have added to the confusion. U.S. ambassador in London Robert Holmes Tuttle said U.S. forces “do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons.” The army, however, had admitted using the weapon.

The question of whether WP is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which the U.S. is a signatory, is tricky. A spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons explained to the BBC, “No, it’s not forbidden by the CWC if it is used within the context of a military application which does not require or does not intend to use the toxic properties of white phosphorus. White phosphorus is normally used to produce smoke, to camouflage movement.

“If that is the purpose for which the white phosphorus is used, then that is considered under the Convention legitimate use.

“If, on the other hand, the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

Sigfrido Ranucci, the Italian documentary maker, points to a declassified report on the use of WP on the Pentagon website headed, “Possible use of phosphorous chemical weapons by Iraq in Kurdish areas along the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian borders.” An intelligence source reports that in late February 1991, after the coalition victory in the war, Saddam came down hard against Kurds who had risen up, and adds, “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorous chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels and the populace in Erbil and Dohuk. The WP chemical was delivered by artillery rounds and helicopter gunships.”

The report went on: “Reports of possible WP chemical weapon attacks spread quickly among the populace in Erbil and Dohuk. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled from these two areas” into Turkey.

So, the Italian filmmaker points out, when Saddam uses WP it’s a chemical weapon. When the Americans use WP, it is not.

Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuja and Ali Syed