Foreign Oil Interests in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Rise of ISIS

Nafeez Ahmed and Antonia Juhasz say that the U.S. is using the possibility of Kurdish independence as a threat against the central government in Baghdad

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ANTON WORONCZUKWelcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

The United States is continuing airstrikes in northern Iraq and in operations that could possibly take up to months. President Obama and other officials have said that the purpose of the strikes are to prevent the genocide of the Yazidi community by aiding the Kurdish Peshmerga forces against the Islamic State. Hundreds have been reportedly killed, and the UN is reporting barbaric sexual violence committed by the Islamic State.

But what geopolitical interests are in play in this extremely oil-rich region?

Joining us from London is Dr. Nafeez Ahmed. Nafeez is a best-selling author, investigative journalist, and international security scholar who writes regularly for The Guardian. He has a new article novel out now, called Zero Point.

And joining us from San Francisco is Antonia Juhasz. Antonia is an oil and energy analyst, a journalist, and author of three books on the oil industry, including The Tyranny of Oil and, most recently, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill.

Thanks for joining us.

ANTONIA JUHASZ, JOURNALIST, OIL AND ENERGY ANALYST: Thank you.

NAFEEZ AHMED, JOURNALIST, THE GUARDIAN: Thank you.

WORONCZUK: So, Nafeez, let’s start with you. Can you talk about what the–can you describe the basic antagonism that has existed between the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad since the invasion of Iraq in 2003?

AHMED: Well, I mean, I think, it goes back to before the 2003 invasion that in the context of the central government’s persecution of the Kurds over many years–and it’s not just to do with Saddam Hussein; you know, it kind of goes even further back than that. But, obviously, Saddam’s policies against minorities created, I think, certainly an aspiration amongst some of these groups to try and have some kind of economy from the central government. So there has been that historic kind of desire in that sense that has kind of given them motivation. So, obviously, in the post invasion period, where we’ve had so many problems in Baghdad, certainly, I think, many different communities have seen a potential opportunity to perhaps have a better existence by trying to do things themselves [incompr.] autonomously pursue self-determination.

I mean, it’s important to remember, I think, that from for the most part, I think, the Iraqi people as a whole, whether they’re Kurdish, Shia, Sunni, Yazidi, or whatever, generally there was a very real sense of Iraqi national identity. But increasingly over the last decade or so, and especially in the post-invasion period, this has certainly eroded. And I think that the serious problems that we’ve had in the post-invasion era have really kind of underscored the levels of sectarianism and the levels of kind of suspicion that we now see manifest in the Kurdish communities, attempts to kind of be much more autonomous from Baghdad.

WORONCZUK: But can you also explain the extent to which the control of oil resources has manifested itself in this antagonism?

AHMED: Well, I think Antonia would probably do a better job of going into detail on this, but there’s certainly been competition between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish kind of semiautonomous administration over how they deal with access to Iraqi oil. And, of course, the Kurds have their own–they have control over their own oil resources. But under the current arrangement, there is–what we’re seeing here is this emerging kind of competition, where the Kurds are trying to exert autonomy on how they basically bring that oil to market, but how they work directly with international oil and gas companies. And this is where we see, this is where really where we see Baghdad’s sovereignty over the Kurdish regions has become quite contested [incompr.]

WORONCZUK: Okay. And Antonia, can you name the oil companies that are present there right now, particularly in the Kurdish region? And what kind of influence or power do you think they have over the internal politics of Iraq?

JUHASZ: Sure, and maybe I’ll go back a little bit to some of that history first. Basically, with the 2003 invasion led by the Bush administration, the Kurdish region really attempted to use the invasion as a way to help it gain its independence and really, in a significant way, just sort of handed over its oil, I would say, to the West and said, look, we’ll give you our oil if you help us gain independence, because, as I’ve argued in many places, I think not the only but certainly one of the primary objectives of the Bush invasion was oil. And we have the Bush administration, with the health help of Western oil companies, actually draft a new national oil law for Iraq that would have granted really unheard of access to foreign oil companies to Iraqi oil, which was dubbed the Iraq oil law. Where the central Iraqi government refused to pass that law, the Kurdish region passed it and said, look, we’ll give you the access that you want if you help us out. And Western oil companies, sort of some smaller ones moved into the Kurdistan region fairly early on. And then, as the years war on, larger oil companies started showing their interest in the Kurdistan region, especially after the central Iraqi government was forced, I would argue, to grant access to Western oil companies, not on the incredibly generous terms that the Kurds offered, but certainly more generous terms than I imagine would have happened without a U.S. military occupation. So you see today companies like Exxon and with Western oil companies BP and Shell already on the ground operating in Iraq. In Kurdistan, like I said, smaller companies, Western oil companies, like Hunt Oil, went in early, started producing. Another company that went in and started producing in a big way is Genel, which is the oil company of BPs former CEO Tony Hayward, who was kicked out due to the BP oil spill. He now heads Genel. He’s operating big-time in Kurdistan. Exxon, Chevron, Marathon, these companies have exploration deals in Kurdistan. They’ve been waiting to come in more heavily until things got worked out between the central government and the Kurdish region. And what hasn’t yet been worked out is that the Kurds are signing oil contracts, but the central Iraqi government is saying, hey, that’s our oil, that’s not your oil; these contracts are illegal, and we’re not going to let them move forward; and there’s a fight between who actually controls this oil.

Enter the Islamic State, enter IAS. And what they’ve been doing is incredibly successfully using oil as a powerful weapon in their war. They’ve taken over fields in Syria. They’ve targeted infrastructure and fields in Iraq. So they’re selling oil that they used in Syria to fund their advance. They’re using oil that they’ve taken from refineries–gasoline, excuse me, to put into cars, to put into jeeps to actually move their invasion forward. And now they moved into Kirkuk, an incredibly hotly debated site about whether it’s in the Kurdistan region or whether it is in the central Iraqi region. One of the primary reasons for the debate is the huge Kirkuk oilfield, which has a massive amount of oil. When ISIS first tried to move on Kirkuk oilfield, the Peshmerga pushed them off, taking over that field, and putting the field for the first time actually in the hands of the Kurds. Now ISIS is threatening, really, to take over all of Kurdistan, and we suddenly have the Obama administration entering militarily.

So I think it’s doing that for two reasons. One is Western oil companies and the Obama administration certainly do not want ISIS to take over Kurdistan. That’s an enormous amount of oil. That oil brings power. It also takes that oil away from Western companies that would like to have it.

I also think, however, that the Obama administration has entered into this game between–game is the wrong word–the dispute between Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government. And what I think the Obama administration is doing is saying, okay, we’re not going to let ISIS takeover Kurdistan, but we’re going to threaten the central Iraqi government with the possibility that we’re going to support Kurdistan independence unless you, the central Iraqi government, shape up. And one of the ways that they want the central Iraqi government to shape up is to get rid of Maliki, and that’s in process. And the other is to better serve U.S. interests. And I think what’s happening is a military ploy to say, look, if you don’t do what we want, we’re ready to aid something you really don’t want, which is a separate Kurdistan.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And, Nafeez, you’ve written about how oil, the centrality of oil in foreign policy can be tied to the rise of the Islamic State. Can you discuss that?

AHMED: Well, I mean, I think it goes back, obviously, to really the origins of the Iraq invasion and what was going on in the context of the Bush administration’s plans to essentially conquer Iraq. And what a lot of people don’t know is that there were a number of different plans that were discussed–this is not to say that these plans were necessarily coherent, but one of the plans was leaked, effectively, by the infamous private intelligence company Stratfor. And according to Stratfor, in the year before the invasion, we had a meeting between Cheney, Vice President Cheney, a number of other administration officials, and he had a meeting with various Iraqi expatriates to discuss their plan to get inside Iraq. And that plan was in fact at that time–was under [under consideration (?)]. On the proposal, according to Jordanian officials, was a plan to basically split Iraq into three according to ethno-sectarian lines.

So this was the kind of thinking that was being explored at the time. And the rationale, according to Stratfor, was very much about trying to ease and distribute the control of power amongst different communities in order to ease U.S. access to oil and gas in Iraq. And so this was considered one of the options that they would do.

Now, it’s difficult to say to what extent this actually influenced policy, ’cause obviously I don’t think ultimately administration officials or people in the State Department decided, okay, we’re going to split Iraq. They didn’t split Iraq. But what’s interesting is the way in which they did actually play off different communities. And I think Antonia’s hit the nail on the head here, where we see that again we have military force being used now, with the possibility that we see military force being used to effectively play off the Kurds and the central government in order for the U.S. to get its way.

Well, back then, in 2003 onwards, what was happening is, first of all, in the early days, we had lots of compelling evidence from a number of intelligence sources on the ground, as well as independent journalists like Doctor Jamal, an unembedded journalist on the ground, confirming that United States was actually supplying arms covertly to elements of the Sunni militia who were linked to al-Qaeda, linked to Zarqawi. They were–in Falluja, for example, they were undertaking psychological operations to support elements of Zarqawi. And the rationale for this was to inflame what was called red-on-red violence, that is, violence between two different types of enemy, in order for the U.S. to kind of watch them effectively kill each other and to kind of do the job of U.S. special forces in the region.

At the same time, they also were obviously financing the Shia government of Iraq, and they were also supporting–they knew very well that there were Shia death squads, and they supported that and allowed that to take place. So effectively this was a divide-and-rule strategy designed to weaken different sides and allow the United States to covertly somehow influence the direction of the conflict.

But that has had a legacy. Rather than leading to a position where we have a more stable Iraq functioning in the interests of the United States or Western powers in accessing, you know, [regional (?)] oil and gas and so on and so forth, what we’ve had actually, is this legacy as they’ve done, and we now have these very virulent factions. And the policy has continued. When we look at what’s been happening in Syria, in Lebanon, across the region in the Middle East, we see that there is this overall policy that under the Bush administration began, which was essentially to fund various Sunni militant factions, many of them linked to al-Qaeda, to mobilize the Saudis, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, to effectively give funding to these groups in the region in order to counter Iranian influence. And this policy has continued, and it kind of was wrapped up in Syria in order to propel the rebellion against Assad, who, of course, was attempting to put down a very real uprising. But in this process, this influx of money and arms and logistical training–and we know that U.S. special forces and British special forces were actually in Syria, by some accounts as early as 2009, according to the french foreign minister. So there was this input going on. And they were liaising, effectively, with not just the secular rebels, but harnessing the region of power of the Saudis and the other Gulf states. And obviously these guys funded the people that they know very well have worked in the past, which is effectively these mercenaries, many of them Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda. And that has effectively spilled over from Syria into Iraq. And effectively we have this–this is really the blowback of a policy which has been designed it to maneuver the region in different ways into a direction that fits various pipeline plans. And we now see that this has actually resulted in something that analysts did not foresee happening in the way it’s really happening now.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Nafeez Ahmed and Antonia Juhasz, thank you both for joining us.

JUHASZ: Thank you.

AHMED: Thanks.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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