Night View of Oil Well Fires

Night View of Oil Well Fires by airborneshodan, on Flickr

The Independent* has a breaking story about suspected, but officially denied, discussions held between British government ministers and oil industry executives about how to carve up Iraq’s oil fields after the 2003 Iraq War.

More than 1,000 documents were released after a five-year battle under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.  They provide evidence that British and US governments held talks with major oil companies in October and November 2002 about allocating contracts to develop Iraq’s oil after the war.

Plans to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world’s largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show….

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The memos document British concerns that the US would retain exclusive control over Iraqi oil development contracts and that it might cut out Shell and BP:

The papers show that Lady Symons [Trade Minister in 2002] agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf because the oil giant feared it was being “locked out” of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: “Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”

The Independent includes this chart, which shows Iraq’s principal oil fields and the foreign companies currently developing them.  BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon feature prominently.  Without a war, those contracts would have been controlled by Saddam Hussein, subject to the international trade embargo imposed by the UN.

In the run-up to the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair became Mr. Bush’s staunchest ally.  Their stated goals were to “free Iraq” and to prevent its abuse of weapons of mass destruction.  They famously warned the world that its first awareness of such abuse could be a mushroom cloud from an exploded Iraqi nuclear bomb.

Through 2002 and into early 2003, however, the US and Britain publicly maintained that all options were on the table, that war was not inevitable, and that Mr. Hussein could avert it by admitting that he possessed WMD’s and by demobilizing them under international auspices.  Those claims were questioned at the time and frequently challenged afterwords, though rarely by the mainstream media.  No WMD’s were ever found.

When these newly released British government memos were written, the US Supreme Court was making a decision different from the one just made in the UK.  It held that the records of Vice President Dick Cheney’s “energy task force” need not be disclosed under the US FOIA.

Perhaps the transparency-minded Mr. Obama would reconsider and release them, and release related records that might shed light on why the US went to war in Iraq, for what purposes, and what it has cost to date in lives and treasure.  If he likes, he can calculate it in dollars per barrel.

[* Corrected from an earlier mistaken reference to the Guardian.]