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Iraqi oil's 15 bloody years

Gary Vogler's memoir of post-invasion Iraq gives context to the many challenges the country still faces

Fifteen years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the notion that it was all an effort to grab oil is firmly entrenched in the popular imagination.

Gary Vogler has written a book that sheds some light on the question. He was an oil advisor to the occupying government in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and a key player in the efforts to revive Iraq's oil sector after the reins were handed back to Iraqis. By his own counting, he spent 75 months in the country after 2003.

Iraq and the Politics of Oil is a candid memoir of years spent devising policy in the Green Zone, fighting political battles with the Pentagon, making friends with Iraqi oilmen and trying to rebuild an oil sector amid the ruins of invasion.

Vogler, alongside men like Thamir Ghadhban, a former oil minister and elder statesman of Iraqi oil (and a hero of the tale), helped restore oil output and get projects to boost southern export capacity up and running.

Part of the book is a lament mixed with anger—at the "arrogance" of some US officials and at the premise for the war itself. Vogler is scathing about Ahmed Chalabi, the US' favoured Iraqi who became prime minister in 2005, but is better known for propagating the lie about weapons of mass destruction. And he's no less forgiving of the hawks back in the Pentagon, who refused to set foot in Iraq but still barked orders down conference-call lines to Baghdad.

It was these men, especially Mike Makovksy, a Pentagon advisor to the CPA, who revealed what Vogler thinks was the hidden oil plan—the reopening of the Mosul-to-Haifa pipeline, which had been closed in 1948. "There was an oil agenda," writes Vogler. "A dream to provide Iraqi oil to Israel played a role in the decision to go to war."

Memorably, Vogler writes of being outside the office of, Doug Feith, another Pentagon neocon, as Colin Powell made his infamous presentation to the UN about Iraq's WMD programme. As Powell urged for something to be done, the men behind the doors started cheering loudly—war was imminent!

Vogler's book is more than a re-examination of the reasons for the invasion. Some readers may get lost in its blur of oil-industry detail. But for watchers of Iraq's energy sector, it's a goldmine. A chapter on the Baiji refinery is fascinating but painful. Seven years before it would be captured by Islamic State in 2014, the refinery was already wilting under sectarianism. Al-Qaida was embedded in the plant and overseeing its staffing until US forces intervened. When the US left in 2011 the militants returned. Later, after IS captured and then surrendered it, its parts were looted and sold by Hashd groups on the black market. The refinery remains closed. In Vogler's view, only a prolonged presence by the US in Iraq would have prevented the sorry outcome.

He also suggests that Iraq is still dealing with decisions made by oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani. He oversaw a political victory is signing up IOCs to the southern megaprojects on puny terms in 2009–10. Yet nine years after the contracts were signed, the fanciful production targets have been renegotiated. ExxonMobil has reduced its stake at West Qurna Phase 1. Occidental has left Zubair. Shell wants out of Majnoon. IOC profitability depended on being paid promptly for expenses, but claims have often been snared in red tape. With many more pressing needs for its money, Baghdad struggled during the oil-price drop to pay foreign firms for their work.

A fifth licensing round is imminent. But Iraq—after more than 30 years of punishing war, sanctions, and more wars—is, understandably, still struggling to balance its political need to control its own resource with its pragmatic need to lure foreign capital to its upstream.

And progress elsewhere in the south has been much slower than planned. The Common Seawater Supply Project, critical to further output growth, has stalled. Shahristani's decision to split a big export-expansion project into two, managed by different state firms, cost his country "hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue over the next 10 years", reckons Vogler. Yet only at the end of his chapter on these projects does Vogler mention allegations of corruption. The vast Unaoil revelations published in 2017 by several newspapers, and subsequent court cases, suggest government inefficiency and poor management were not the sole culprits.

The Kurdish problem still looms over Iraq too. Vogler is full of contempt for the Kurdistan Regional Government's attempts to sign upstream contracts and sell oil independently—in his terms possibly the largest "oil-smuggling operation" in history. Even the Iraqi parliament's recent passage of a law to re-form the Iraq National Oil Company has been more than a decade in the works.

Despite the successes in Iraq's oil sector—it is now Opec's second-biggest producer—Vogler's tale is often a sad one of missed opportunities and tragic waste. The US Treasury pegged the total cost of the Iraq war at $2 trillion. "This was a huge cost to our country for what appears to be of little to no benefit." As Vogler acknowledges, the cost to Iraqis was even greater.

Iraq and the Politics of Oil: An Insider's Perspective by Gary Vogler, University Press of Kansas, 2017

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