Saddam Hussein, a Kremlin source told the Russian Information Agency (RIA-Novosti), “isn’t so nice that you would want to defend him just for his own sake.”  Following the December 12, 2002, announcement by the Iraqi government that it had cancelled its contract with Russia’s Lukoil, which held the rights to develop Iraq’s vast West Kurna oil field, there was no longer any reason for Russia to pretend that it opposed military action against Iraq as a matter of principle: Russia, as the anonymous source told RIA-Novosti, would look after her economic interests.  By canceling the contract, Baghdad was merely acknowledging what most observers had maintained since last fall: Russia had made a bargain with Washington regarding possible “regime change” in Iraq.  If the United States decided to use military force to overthrow Saddam, Moscow would make no serious effort to stop it.  In exchange, as President Bush himself stated in a November interview with Russia’s NTV, Washington would “take into account” Russia’s “economic interests” in a post-Saddam scenario.  By scuttling the Lukoil contract, Baghdad probably was attempting to complicate matters for the Russian turncoats, whose claims to a share of Iraq’s oil wealth are based on such deals.

Chronicles readers are aware that Lukoil may have been pressured to adopt a pro-American stance by Russian petro-oligarchs eager to cooperate with Washington in hopes of serving as an alternative (to OPEC) oil source for the United States (see Cultural Revolutions, December 2002).  In December, one Russian oil executive stated plainly that U.S. companies had been involved in “blackmailing” some Russian firms.  Nikolay Tokarev, who heads Zarubezhneft, claimed that his company, which has operated in Iraq since the 1960’s, was told it must finance the Iraqi opposition in return for being allowed to continue to operate in a post-Saddam Iraq.  Tokarev said, without offering specific details, that certain other Russian companies were involved in a “dirty game” with the United States.  The Russian oil executive shrugged off suggestions that Washington’s anti-Iraq moves were in any way connected to President Bush’s “War on Terror”: “For the Americans, this venture, despite all the political rhetoric, is aimed at gaining control over the oil market.”

U.S. actions in Central Asia, the Trans-Caucasus/Caspian Basin, and Iraq do, indeed, appear to be part of a coordinated effort to gain influence—if not outright dominance—in several of the most important current and potential oil-producing regions in the world.  While it is true that the War on Terror, together with Washington’s recent recognition that powerful OPEC member Saudi Arabia is an unreliable partner, triggered the Iraq plan, it is also likely that U.S. oil companies and politicians close to them have been eyeing Iraq for some time.  (President Bush’s and Vice President Cheney’s ties to the “oil patch” are well known; National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice is a former Chevron board member.)

Iraq boasts the second-largest known oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia, as well as considerable gas fields.  Some experts believe that there may be additional deposits there, possibly enough to make Iraq the equal of Saudi Arabia.  Moreover, Iraqi oil is of high quality and relatively cheap to produce: Whoever controls the oil fields of Iraq stands to realize huge profits.  U.S. and British oil firms held the dominant position in Iraq’s oil industry until the 1972 nationalization of the Iraq Oil Company.  Subsequently, Baghdad turned to French and Soviet firms for aid in developing its vast holdings.  Naturally, U.S. and British companies have supported U.N. sanctions against Baghdad, since the sanctions prevented Russian, French, and Chinese rivals from fully exploiting the Iraqi oil deposits.  Just as naturally, Moscow, Paris, and Beijing have lobbied for the lifting of those sanctions, though it had become increasingly apparent that the United States had no intention of allowing that to happen, which may help to explain why Russia, France, and China seem to have reached an agreement with the United States about protecting their interests in Iraq after Saddam.

It appears that last fall’s U.N. wrangling (with Russia, France, and China bargaining with the United States over the terms of the U.N. resolution on Iraqi weapons inspections) and the Bush administration’s decision to shift its War on Terror to Iraq have more to do with the economic interests of various oil firms than with maintaining the United Nations’ international role or fighting actual terrorists.  Any future argument among the principals will likely be a sign of continued bargaining over the terms and conditions for removing Saddam.

The coming U.S. war on Iraq is no mere Bush vendetta against a Third World dictator; it is an extension of the Great Game among the world’s most powerful countries and corporations.  It is probably too much to ask that Washington policymakers be honest about their true motives in pursuing regime change in Iraq.  Americans have shown themselves willing to wage war against terror, but nobody has asked them whether they are willing to bear the material and human costs of waging war to alter the current international order and to stir up an already volatile region of the world so that U.S. and British oil companies can reap huge profits from selling Iraqi oil.