Before the invasion of Iraq, while millions demonstrated in the streets, often waving homemade placards with "No Blood for Oil"–or equivalents like "Don’t Trade Lives for Oil" and like "How Did USA’s Oil Get under Iraq’s Sand?"–the Bush administration said remarkably little about the vast quantities of petroleum on which Saddam Hussein’s regime was perched. The President did, however, speak reverently about preserving not Iraq’s "energy reserves" but its "patrimony," as he so euphemistically put it. The American mainstream media followed suit, dismissing arguments about the significance of Iraqi and Middle Eastern oil as the refuge of, if not scoundrels, then at least truly simpleminded dissidents who knew not whereof they spoke. Generally, in our news pages and on the TV news, with Iraq at the edge of a shock-and-awe invasion, Iraqi energy reserves were dealt with as if no more than a passing thought, as if the Middle East’s main export was hummus.

Little has changed. When former Fed chief Alan Greenspan recently indicated in passing in his memoir that the war was "about oil," there was a brief firestorm of scorn in Washington; an administration spokesperson termed it "Georgetown cocktail party analysis" ("A refill of crude, please, straight up…") and Greenspan quickly began to backtrack under the pressure. Oil? Who us? The Bush administration’s plans to protect the Oil Ministry in Baghdad and Iraq’s major oil fields amid otherwise unchecked chaos in April 2003 were certainly noted in the news, but went largely uncommented upon (unless you were an Internet news jockey).

Here’s the strange thing about the Iraq oil "debate" in our media world. Call me crazy, but if you were going to invade Iraq and oil wasn’t right at the forefront of your brain, you would be truly derelict, even if you hadn’t run a major energy services corporation or hadn’t had a double-hulled oil tanker named after you. Jack Miles, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book God: A Biography, has just recently suggested that the oil endgame in Iraq is in sight — of which, except in the Web world, there has largely been neither a beginning game. nor a middle game.

He begins dramatically this way: "The oil game in Iraq may be almost up. On September 29th, like a landlord serving notice, the government of Iraq announced that the next annual renewal of the United Nations Security Council mandate for a multinational force in Iraq–the only legal basis for a continuation of the American occupation–will be the last." If that was the first Iraqi shoe to fall, Miles suggests that terminating a little noticed companion Security Council mandate on Iraqi oil may be the second.

As he writes, the political half of the Bush administration’s gamble in Iraq has already been lost, but it "has proven adamantly unwilling to accept the loss of the economic half, the oil half, without a desperate fight." He then offers a unique exploration of what may be a kind of "slow-motion showdown" between the Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which has, in the "Blackwatergate" affair and other matters, suddenly been flexing muscle that no one previously imagined it had. As Iraqi oil legislation–that "benchmark" of both Congress and the White House–flounders terminally in the Iraqi parliament, the question is: Will a fragmenting Iraq take back sovereignty over its oil resources, even on a regional basis? As Miles puts it, will "a new, Iran-allied, oil-rich, nine-province Shiite Iraq… match Kurdistan’s deal [with Hunt Oil] with one of its own, perhaps even with ready-and-willing China. Will any combination of American military and diplomatic pressure suffice to stop such an untoward outcome?"