The Oil Spoils

The Oil Spoils

Under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of March 18, Qusay Saddam Hussein carted off nearly $1 billion in hard currency from Iraq’s central bank.


Under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of March 18, Qusay Saddam Hussein carted off nearly $1 billion in hard currency from Iraq’s central bank. The hasty withdrawal as war was about to begin ranks as the “grandest larceny in bank history,” to quote columnist William Safire. Two months later an even larger heist took place, this time in the bold light of public diplomacy.

On May 22 the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution lifting trade sanctions on Iraq. The resolution ended nearly thirteen years of economic strangulation and freed the Iraqi economy from the trade and investment barriers that have caused widespread economic misery and social suffering. But the resolution also placed the ultimate prize–control of Iraqi oil revenues–firmly in the hands of the United States.

The resolution creates a “Development Fund for Iraq” into which all remaining funds in the UN oil-for-food account (estimated at $13 billion) and all future proceeds from Iraqi oil sales (up to $20 billion a year) are to be deposited. The fund, according to the resolution, “shall be used in a transparent manner to meet the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, for the economic reconstruction and repair of Iraq’s infrastructure, for the continued disarmament of Iraq…and for other purposes benefiting the people of Iraq.” The “people of Iraq” will have no say in these matters, however: Disbursements from the fund are to be made in “consultation with the Iraqi interim administration,” but actual control of the fund will rest solely with the US-led “Authority”–defined as the unified command of the US-British occupation force.

The fund will be located at the Central Bank of Iraq, currently managed by Peter McPherson, a former US Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and executive of Bank of America. It will have an International Advisory and Monitoring Board–including representatives of the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development–which will select accountants to audit the fund but have no power over financial disbursement decisions. The funds are likely to flow primarily to US and British business interests. The Bush Administration has already named Bechtel the main contractor for Iraqi reconstruction, touching off a feeding frenzy of politically connected corporations scrambling to cash in.

There is no time limit on US control of Iraqi oil revenues. The current arrangements will continue until an “internationally recognized, representative government of Iraq [is] properly constituted,” a process that could take years. The resolution calls for the Security Council to “review” the implementation of the resolution after twelve months, but an affirmative vote of the Council would be required to change the terms of the resolution, which means that the United States and Britain could veto any challenges to their control. American and British officials will thus have open-ended rights to manage and direct Iraq’s oil revenues.

The resolution denies the UN any significant role in deciding Iraq’s economic and political affairs. It calls for the appointment of a UN Special Representative for Iraq but gives the position no real authority. The UN envoy will coordinate humanitarian and reconstruction assistance by “UN agencies and between UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations,” while also “promoting” economic reconstruction and “encouraging” efforts to rebuild administrative and police capacity. The Special Representative will work “intensively with the Authority” and “the people of Iraq” to establish “representative governance.” (In late May, Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the post for four months.) But decision-making authority over the creation of a new government, as on other matters, will rest entirely with the occupying powers.

The UN disarmament mission is also being cast aside. Under the terms of previous Security Council resolutions, which the United States authored, the lifting of sanctions against Iraq is contingent upon UN certification that the country is fully disarmed. But the return of UN inspectors might confirm the lack of prohibited weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which would be an acute embarrassment for US and British officials. The draft resolution avoids this problem by leaving the responsibility for uncovering alleged Iraqi weapons solely in US hands.

Through its bold grab for control over Iraqi oil wealth, the United States is confirming the worst suspicions of its critics, who argued that this was a war for oil. The old regime may have walked off with piles of cash, but the new rulers will gain something far more valuable. To the victors of war go the spoils of oil. But there is at least a modest price to be paid for this bonanza: As the United States and Britain gain exclusive authority to shape Iraq’s economic and political future, they must also accept the blame if Iraq descends into further lawlessness and chaos.

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