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The Guardian: Iraq says no to oil theft

The population of Iraq want some say in how their country’s oil reserves are developed. We must support them.

By John Hilary
August 7, 2007 10:00 AM

Only two things seem to bridge the sectarian divide in today’s Iraq. One is football, as shown in last week’s celebrations among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds when the national team beat Saudi Arabia to win the Asian Cup. The other is oil – or, to be precise, how best to use Iraq’s massive oil reserves in order to build some form of future prosperity on the ruins of occupation and civil war.

A unique public opinion survey has just been published which asked respondents from all sections of Iraqi society whether they feel the country’s oil sector should be opened up to development by multinationals such as Shell, BP and Exxon, or kept under the control of Iraqi public sector companies instead. Eight in 10 believed that wise use of Iraq’s oil could still provide some prosperity for them and their children in the future. Yet, more tellingly, two in three respondents said they wanted to see the country’s oil kept under Iraqi control rather than see it opened up to foreign companies. And that view is shared across all ethnic and sectarian groups.

The poll was conducted on behalf of a group of NGOs to establish what support might exist for the new oil law currently grinding its way through Iraq’s parliamentary process. The Iraqi government has come under intense US and British pressure to pass the law, which was included as one of the political “benchmarks” set for the country by President Bush at the beginning of this year. At the centre of the law is a proposal to hand over to foreign multinationals the primary role in developing Iraq’s vast unexplored oilfields, under contracts of up to 30 years.

We also know from meetings with the Foreign Office here in London that British officials have been working with the oil industry on drafts of the law since its earliest beginnings, long before it was ever shown to Iraqi MPs. Only once the Iraqi council of ministers had approved the law in February of this year was it shown to parliamentarians, and there has still been no public debate over the issue, despite its obvious centrality to the future of the country. Three-quarters of Iraqis polled in the current survey complain that they have been kept in the dark on the matter.

Worse still, the Iraqi government seems to be taking steps to close down what little debate exists. In a move reminiscent of the Saddam era, Iraq’s oil minister has issued a directive banning trade unions from participating in any discussion on the new oil law. Given that the only real opposition to the law within the country has come from bodies such as the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, this latest repression is a double act of violence against Iraq’s democracy today and its prosperity tomorrow.

The battle over Iraqi oil lays bare the motives behind the US-led invasion in 2003 and our continuing occupation of the country four years on. Yet if our own political leaders wish to maintain their supposed commitment to democracy in Iraq, they must respect the Iraqi people’s opposition to foreign takeover of their oil wealth. Hassan Juma’a, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, visited London last month to pledge his union’s commitment to an ongoing campaign against the theft of Iraq’s oil wealth. The least we can do is support the Iraqi people’s right to dissent.

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/john_hilary/2007/08/iraq_says_no_to_oil_theft.html

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