David Horgan opposed the war on Iraq, but in other ways he is an antiwar protester’s worst nightmare: The oil executive freely admits that he is in the bombed-out country “for greed and glory.” His goal is a mammoth oil deal for the small Irish company he works for, Petrel Resources. Still, amid the shooting and kidnappings and chaos, the wiry 43-year-old Irishman says he will be satisfied with even crumbs. “A crumb in Iraq,” he says eagerly, eyes widening, “would be hundreds of millions of dollars at present value. It is high risk, in every sense, but it is an excellent play.”
Horgan is no newcomer to Iraq and to this particular “play.” He dealt with the administration of Saddam Hussein and he is willing to do business with whoever comes next, even a US puppet, as he believes it will be. “We’ll deal with the puppet,” he said one day at the Baghdad Sheraton, as a group of Nepalese Gurkha warriors clomped past loaded with body armor and rifles. “Any puppet will have exactly the same objectives and worries. His first priority is to get the oil flowing.” That may sound cynical, but at least it sounds honest–which is more, as Horgan points out, than the Bush Administration can say about its justification for invading Iraq.
A little time with Horgan in Baghdad opens up a window on one of the most important but confusing elements of postwar Iraq: the upcoming battle for control of its vast oil reserves. Before the war, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously announced that this war had “literally nothing to do with oil,” while antiwar protesters chanted “no blood for oil,” in the streets. Since then there has been very much blood, and surprisingly little oil. New exploration of Iraq’s untapped fields is at a virtual standstill; the repair of the old fields has been notoriously slow. A little-known statistic: According to international oil traders, the United States is currently importing 500,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day (a type of oil charmingly called “Basrah Light”), down from more than 700,000 per day last February, before the war started. I caught up with Horgan one day outside the Iraqi Oil Ministry. He was dressed in a gray suit that flapped in the dry hot wind. More and more, amid the chaos, power over oil seems to be slipping back into the hands of the Iraqi bureaucracy. The ministry is an eleven-story edifice of the typical squat Stalinist design, the color of desert dirt. The place is bristling with coils of razor wire slung like giant slinkies, and a machine-gun bunker protected by sandbags is set on each side of the entrance. Inside it has the bustling ambience of a run-down betting parlor. Most maps and contracts are off-limits, and mustached bodyguards lounge about on the plush executive floor, with pistols of various makes and calibers in their belts.
But there are rarities here, tidbits of information that would make an oilman’s nose twitch. The well-lit library is full of dusty tomes with titles like The Sedementology of the Euphrates Formation and Floraminera and Biostratratology of Some Late Cretacean Sediment of Northern Iraq. That day Horgan was dropping off a series of seismic readings he had carried back with him to Ireland from the last visit, and he was picking up some large-scale maps, which, he said, “had heretofore been military secrets, believe it or not.”
Perhaps Horgan finds it easy to do business in Iraq because the bombed-out buildings of Baghdad and the nightly shootings and explosions are somewhat reminiscent of the Belfast of his youth. He and the other children would throw rocks at the British soldiers, he said. “Sometimes they’d charge at you in the armored vehicles and scatter the kids.” In 1999, Horgan and other Petrel executives made their first visit to Baghdad, where they joined the herd of international companies tugging at Saddam Hussein’s sleeve. Sure, UN sanctions were in place, but companies were jostling for position when the walls eventually would come tumbling down. The Iraqis were glad to talk. “More than eighty-five companies were negotiating with us at that time,” recalled Ali Hammadi, an executive at the Iraqi Oil Ministry. In an interview, he dressed in a well-ironed blue shirt and sat behind an expansive wooden desk. Through the window was a view of the sprawling derelict Iraqi Olympic compound once headed by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. “We had plans, tremendous plans,” Hammadi said, waving his hand to show the size. Hammadi has a cosmopolitan air and wears tinted glasses. “I negotiated with Russians, Italians, Germans and Canadians.” Even American firms pursued their prospects, through European interests, as did the Chinese, the Indonesians and the Indians.