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Did Big Oil Win the War in Iraq?

As U.S. and British oil companies sign contracts with the Iraqi government, is it time to declare Big Oil the "victor" in the bloody venture?

Last week, ExxonMobil became the first U.S. oil company in 35 years to sign an oil-production contract with the government of Iraq.

As I write, several other contracts with the world’s largest oil companies are being finalized, and more are expected when a new negotiating round kicks off in Baghdad on Dec. 11.

Do these contracts represent a "victory" for Big Oil in Iraq? Yes, but not one as big as the companies had hoped for (at least, not yet).

Before the United States and Britain invaded Iraq in March 2003, their oil companies were shut out of oil-production contracts being negotiated by the government of Saddam Hussein. Today, more than six years of war later, Saddam is gone, and the U.S. and British oil companies are not only in on the oil contracts, they have managed to sweeten the terms.

However, organized resistance by Iraqis and people around the world has thus far succeeded in denying Big Oil its Big Prize: passage of the Iraq Oil Law, alternatively called Iraq Hydrocarbons Law, which would grant far greater control over Iraqi oil to foreign companies on terms much less favorable to Iraq than the current contracts provide.

If the negotiations proceed on their current path, foreign companies will produce the vast majority of Iraq’s oil. How much control they will exert, and who will reap the greatest benefits (and endure the steepest costs) is yet to be determined.

Before the Invasion

In January 2000, 10 days into President George W. Bush’s first term, representatives of the largest oil and energy companies joined the new administration to form the Cheney Energy Task Force. As part of its deliberations, the task force reviewed a series of lists titled "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts" naming more than 60 companies from some 30 countries with contracts in various stages of negotiation.

None of contracts were with American nor major British companies, and none could take effect while the U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iraq remained in place. Three countries held the largest contracts: China, Russia and France -- all members of the Security Council and all in a position to advocate for the end of sanctions.

Were Saddam to remain in power and the sanctions to be removed, these contracts would take effect, and the U.S. and its closest ally would be shut out of Iraq’s great oil bonanza.

After the Invasion

The invasion of Iraq dealt handily with the problem of U.S. and British exclusion. ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and other major oil companies met with the Iraqi government on countless occasions, and the Iraqis tried to make deals.

But the oil companies, backed aggressively by the Bush administration, steadfastly insisted that contracts would only be signed after the Iraq Oil Law was passed. They nearly prevailed on several occasions, but organized resistance in and outside of Iraq has continually stymied the law’s passage.

Several forces have conspired to bring the oil companies to the negotiating table today.

Most recently and significantly, Iraq’s Parliament has refused to even consider the law until after the January 2010 elections. It is quite likely that a new government hostile to the interests of foreign (particularly U.S. and British) oil companies could come to power in those elections, making passage of the law much less likely. The deals being offered today would be the best the companies would be likely to get.

President Barack Obama and his administration have been vocal and active proponents of the law’s passage. However, this administration’s allegiance to the oil industry is not as steadfast as that of its predecessor.

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