Greg Muttitt is the author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. This book (published in 2011 by the Bodley Head, an imprint of Random House) is one of the most important studies of the links between conflict and resources.
Greg was previously Co-Director of campaigning charity Platform, which exposes and fights the environmental and human impacts of the oil industry. He is currently Campaigns and Policy Director at anti-poverty charity War on Want.
Since the Iraq war started in 2003, Greg has investigated the hidden plans for the future of the country's oil. This work took him to meetings where US and UK government officials lobbied Iraqi decision-makers, and to meetings where Iraqi oil ministry teams discussed their future oil policy with western companies. But Greg also talked to ordinary Iraqis, and a few politicians, about what they wanted to happen to their oil. He attended Iraq’s first anti-privatisation conference in Basra, and the meeting in Amman at which Iraq’s trade unions decided they would fight the oil law the US was pushing.
ORG’s Sustainable Security programme has for some time focused on the role of increased competition over resources as a potential driver of global insecurity. Ben Zala, ORG's Sustainable Security Programme Manager, interviewed Greg Muttit in London earlier this year.
ORG in Conversation - Greg Muttitt by Oxford Research Group (ORG)
Ben Zala: Welcome, Greg, to this ‘In Conversation' series with the Oxford Research Group. I want to start off by asking you, why should people be interested in a book about oil in Iraq some eight years now after the 2003 invasion?
Greg Muttitt: In so many ways the war in Iraq has been a complete disaster especially for the Iraqi people. I think the really important thing for us as activists, researchers – those who opposed the war – is to learn the lessons from it. In particular, at the moment our country is at war, again, with another oil rich Arab country (Ed. referring to British involvement in the Libyan conflict still underway at the time).
It’s very important to look at what happened in Iraq: What role did oil play, how did the US and Britain try to mould Iraqi politics in their interests and what are the consequences of that?
So, to me, it’s very important to look at what happened in Iraq: What role did oil play, how the US and Britain try to mould Iraqi politics in their interests and what are the consequences of that? That, I hope, will allow us to engage more effectively in future conflicts, and in trying to stop them in particular.
BZ: I read on the front of the book that Naomi Klein described the book as, “nothing short of a secret history of the war.” How difficult was this to research and to access data? I understand there were a few Freedom of Information requests made?
GM: I got hold of about 1,000 government documents shared between the US government and the British government and got almost all of them through the Freedom of Information Act. The thing about the Freedom of Information act is - it’s a good thing of course - Tony Blair said in his biography his biggest regret was passing that, not the war in Iraq or anything like that - but the thing about the Freedom of Information Act as it’s a useful tool, but you have to fight. You don’t expect to get really interesting information just by asking for it. So some of the best and most revealing documents I’ve got, which really dig deep into the British strategy on Iraqi oil, the minutes of their meetings with BP and Shell and so on in the run up to the war, all of that stuff came from a request I made in 2005, where I finally got the documents in 2010. So it was a five year struggle through all of the stages of the Freedom of Information Act. You ask for it, they say no, you appeal, you go to the Information Commissioner, in that case he found largely in my favour but the government appealed against him. So it went to the Information Tribunal and then we had a long process of trying to settle it to resolve it where I said, “okay I want these documents, I believe you have those, which you haven’t listed” etc. So it was a struggle in that sense to get them.
I did around 100 or so interviews with British and American officials involved in the occupation, with executives of oil companies and with Iraqis - Iraqi civil society, Iraqi politicians and so on. But the thing that surprised me was that talking to British and American officials, who by the time I spoke to them (which was mainly in 2009) were now ex-officials, - they were a lot more open than I expected them to be. I think the reason for that is because everyone knows that the war was a disaster, so I think those who were involved in it are very keen to position themselves to say “it wasn’t me that did all that terrible stuff, that was someone else”. They’re trying to cleanse their own reputations. So I was speaking to actually very senior officials, which surprised me, and they were quite frank with me. But that’s my guess as to why.
BZ: There’s quite a considerable part of the book that focuses on the attempts to remove parliamentary oversight of the privatisation of Iraq’s oil and particularly the awarding of contracts, and I understand you spent some time with Iraqi unions. Can you tell me a little bit about that and some of the challenges that they faced and are facing now?
GM: Throughout most of the period I was working on Iraq, I was collaborating especially with the oil workers trade union in Basra, working to a lesser extent with other trade unions around the country. These were unions that were established in 2003 after the Saddam regime fell. They were established in spite of, rather than, because of the US/UK occupation. I think what happened was that the neo-Conservatives and the kind of ‘muscular realists’ of the US administration, who all of them were utterly convinced of the power of the US military and US ideas, I suppose, but they didn’t plan for the occupation as is well known, and has been well reported. I think the formation of trade unions was something – one of many things – which caught them by surprise.
So by the time of Summer 2003, when the Occupation Authorities started to think, 'hang on a minute trade unions are being formed, we’re not funding them, we’re not controlling them, maybe they are going to undermine what we’re trying to achieve here'. By that stage the unions were already very - getting quite well organised.
There were some attempts by the occupation authorities to stamp down on the unions during Summer 2003, by that stage the unions were sufficiently organised that they were able to stand up to it. Through doing so they achieved successes for their members, they got salaries that hadn’t been paid for three months. Those were paid, etc., and that only strengthened them, this attempt to clamp down on them.
The US administration who were utterly convinced of the power of the US military and US ideas…didn’t plan for the occupation…. I think the formation of trade unions was something – one of many things – which caught them by surprise.
The unions were - and especially the oil workers union - were really the ones who started the struggle against the privatisation of the oil that the Americans were desperately trying to achieve and they were very successful in that. Surprisingly, amazingly successful given that they were under constant threat of their members being killed, being kidnapped, being arrested and so on.
But since those successes they had, especially in 2007, there’s been very intense repression against trade unions by the government. Leaders have been arrested, unions have been declared illegal, state owned oil companies – well state owned companies in general – have been ordered not to recognise or meet with or deal with unions. They’ve had their offices confiscated, their computers taken, all of this. They’ve had union members transferred to other jobs on the other side of the country away from their families, away from their homes and importantly, from the government’s point of view, away from their union activities. So the unions had been very significant but they’ve come under immense pressure as a result.
I think one thing that’s made a really big difference in that regard is solidarity internationally. From civil society groups in general, but also, in particular, from trade unions, international trade unions, the US trade unions have been very good, the global union federations have been very good, and I think that kind of solidarity has helped restrain some of the worst excesses of the Iraqi government.
BZ: Sticking on that theme a little bit, but looking to the future, we have the draw-down of US forces that’s happening at the moment. Are you at all optimistic for Iraq’s future?
GM: I am an optimist and I think I’m very rare in being an optimist. I have absolutely no hope in Iraq’s politicians. I have no hope in the continued presence of US troops if they do manage to find a way to stay. Everything that’s been done as a formal, political, institutional, structural level has been catastrophic, and the political system remains utterly dysfunctional.
The reason I feel hopeful is because I spent several years working with Iraqi civil society groups. I didn’t know anything about Iraq when I started in 2003 but the work I was doing on oil policy, trying to expose it, trying to stop it, trying to support and strengthen Iraqi civil society groups, it gave me a window into how Iraqis think, how they organise, how they operate. And what I found was, I would say a political culture that is way more sophisticated then what we have in Britain.
In the planning for war and in the conduct of the occupation, I’ve seen oil absolutely at the centre of British and American government thinking.
You know I felt jealous. People consistently are very interested in politics, they are very concerned about what decisions are being made, what the consequences are going to be. There is a very strong sense of the common good, whether that’s at a village/town/community level or whether that’s at a national level, and there is a real desire to work together and organise to resolve these problems. Now those are the things I could never say about Britain. It’s there in Britain, yes, we do organise, but it’s a real challenge. We’re constantly confronted with apathy or lack of political education or understanding, and in those respects Iraq is very different. So where that leaves me after eight and a half years of war and occupation is that, in the immediate term, I look at the Iraqi government – I don’t have any hope there – but in the longer term, I feel Iraqis have a real capacity to resolve their problems and build a very positive future for themselves. So that’s where my hope lies.
BZ: Looking back now, from all the research you’ve done, where do you situate what we might call the ‘oil question’ in amongst the other factors that led to the invasion in 2003?
GM: Oil was certainly the most important of the strategic factors leading up to the war. It wasn’t the only factor. But what I did was I looked at both the build-up to war and then the conduct of the war and the occupation. What you see is, as early as 2000 (so during the Bush election campaign for US president) – so this is a year before September 11th 2001 – something struck me there which was his energy policy. He talked about this energy policy and it talked about the problems of the breach (the weakening of sanctions against the Saddam Hussein regime), it talked about human rights concerns in Iraq, it talked about security fears about Iraq. Now none of these would normally sound like energy policies. They didn’t appear in his foreign policy manifesto - that talked about China, Russia, etc. - they were in his energy policy manifesto. I was quite surprised to find it, and that makes a very strong suggestion about how he was thinking about this.
Then, as he came to power there were a number of think tanks who were raising strategic questions about where the oil is going to come from in the future. They pointed out that demand in Asia was increasing far more quickly than supply was keeping up with it and they said we have a serious strategic, long-term problem with supply of oil. Those think tank reports, they raised strategic questions about oil and their strategic answers were always: Iraq. So well before September 11th, Iraq was the centre of the Bush administration’s thinking. September 11th was of course the crucial part of the picture, and you can ask the question of: Would the Iraq War have happened without it? It would have been different, its timing would have been different, and perhaps it wouldn’t have happened, but the strategic thinking about oil goes much deeper. In the planning for war and in the conduct of the occupation I’ve seen oil at the absolute centre of British and American government thinking.
BZ: Greg, thank you very much for your time, we appreciate it.
GM: Thank you.