Fuel on the Fire is a history of the struggle for Iraq’s oil which began with the 2003 war and where despite overwhelming military and economic might, the US has failed to impose its designs.

Greg Muttitt, Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (The Bodley Head 2011), xxviii, 433pp.

Just in terms of the documentation produced, Fuel on the Fire is a valuable reference book. Muttitt has dug up a huge amount of original material, a lot of it straight from the enemy’s inbox: Pentagon officials’ emails, oil company contracts, embassy memos and interviews with the key players. It is now a commonplace to say that the war was about oil but it still has force when confirmed so undeniably.

Out of all the material the book throws up, perhaps the most startling are the minutes and memos from meetings in late 2002 between the major multinational oil companies, the governments of the US and UK, and the then opposition in Iraq. As instances of the application of ruthless political and economic power they are hard to beat, and deserve to be remembered. In documenting this period Muttitt shows how the plan to carve up Iraq’s oil was an integral part of the war, right from the first stages. Alongside revelations from Chilcot, like the Bush-Blair meeting in Crawford, Texas, and the war logs from Wikileaks, these meetings form the secret history of the war.

The bulk of the book is devoted to an analysis of the ongoing struggle for Iraq’s oil, a struggle which Muttitt reveals to be far from settled. The interest in Iraqi oil is fundamentally a long term one. From the beginning, Muttitt shows that the key American objective has been to secure long term access and control, by forcing through an oil law to guarantee contracts over many years, and by establishing a compliant and stable government to uphold it. The theft of this all important raw material was never going to be just a smash and grab operation. After all, most oil consumed in the US does not come from the Middle East. The real prize is much bigger than simple pillage and plunder.

The real strategic value of oil lies in its role as a potential lever on the global economy. To fulfil this role there has to be ‘a cushion of spare capacity’, so that production can be raised (or lowered) to suit the prevailing interests of whoever is in control. The challenge is maintaining this situation against a background of increasing demand and depleting supplies. Moreover over 60% of proven reserves are concentrated in a handful of countries surrounding the Persian gulf – Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. This region of the world is therefore absolutely key. The imperial powers have long recognised this special importance of the Middle East. As early as 1917 the British War Cabinet secretary described Persian and Mesopotamian oil as ‘a first-class British war aim’ (p.5). The relative decline of oil supplies elsewhere in the world has only amplified this importance. Hence the significance of Iraq specifically; the country has the second largest reserves in the world, but before 2003 only a third of its known fields were in production, leaving a vast amount of untapped oil (p.32).

The book presents this basic analysis clearly. However there are some weaknesses following on from it. As Muttitt describes it the global importance of oil is that high oil prices are often the trigger for economic crises: ‘high oil prices weaken the economies of oil-importing countries: 10 of the 11 recessions in the USA since the Second World War (including 2008) were preceded by high oil price’ (p.32). The connection between fluctuations in oil prices and fluctuations in the world economy is never fully explained. On one level, this is simply a failure to state the obvious: that oil has a huge impact because it is essential in almost every branch of capitalist industry, whether in producing heat, light, plastics or fertilisers.

The basic material foundation of oil’s importance is skipped over. At the same time an abstract connection between oil and the world economy substitutes for a more mediated analysis of how other factors, including ones that are not strictly ‘economic’, come to intervene. For example it is never quite explained why the US in particular would be especially concerned with oil, or especially vulnerable to sharp changes in oil prices. Partly this is because it is a huge industrial country that depends on outside supplies. Equally important however is the overwhelming military superiority of the US, weighed against an economy which, although still the biggest in the world, is facing relative decline and increased competition from China, Russia and others.

The military strength of the US is barely mentioned and the competitive factor, rivalry between different imperialist countries, is downplayed: ‘They would prefer American companies to win the contracts. But what matters to them is the pool of oil supplied. So if the Chinese could deliver increasing production, or the Russians, or the French – well done!’ (p.31). It is true that the US is concerned with global supply rather than grabbing oil for its own domestic consumption, but it is very much concerned with who is in control of this global supply. The influence of Russian, Chinese or French companies, in Iraq or elsewhere, would certainly not be welcomed by the US if it did not comply with its global agenda.

Taken together these two factors mean that US concern for oil tends to take on a particularly acute expression: the US tends to rely more and more on its military strength to offset its economic weaknesses – in other words by bombing, invading and occupying weaker countries. Often the targets are oil-rich countries, and maintaining US ‘energy security’ is a direct goal. Other times, or at the same time, the aim is to project power more generally; to set an example to the world by demonstrating the American ability to intervene militarily.

The slightly narrow focus on purely economic factors behind the war is reflected in a noticeable blind spot when it comes to the international antiwar movement. While the British TUC and the American equivalent, the AFL-CIO, are featured quite prominently, there is little mention of the global antiwar movement otherwise. In truth the labour movement was not in a position to take militant action against the war. While trade union support was a key part of the antiwar movement, the lobbying efforts of the TUC and AFL-CIO that Muttitt refers to, and even the admirable expressions of solidarity with the Iraqi oil workers union, surely cannot be compared to mass demonstrations involving millions of people around the world, for example on February 15th 2003. The movement against the war, including the exploitation of Iraq’s oil, did not take a directly ‘economic’ form.

At the international and imperial scale then there are some gaps. However, where the book really comes into its own is in discussing the ‘domestic’ struggle taking place in Iraq itself. Muttitt submits this close-quarters fight to a deft and subtle analysis. It is easy to imagine that war, as a force of massive brutality, simply rolls over and cancels out all other struggles. The mainstream media account and the messages issued by our own politicians only reinforce the picture: shock and awe, IEDs, car bombs, random sectarian bloodbaths, troop surges, and for show, the occasional election – ink-stained fingers included. Against this image Fuel on the Fire shows very convincingly how politics and resistance continue under the fog of war. The parties involved are multiple – occupation forces, colonial viceroys, foreign advisers, Iraqi politicians, industry officials, company brokers, the armed resistance, the oil workers unions, and Iraqi civil society more generally. Although the actors almost all fall into two camps – US and Iraqi – one of the strengths of the book is to shows how neither of these is homogenous.

There were divisions within the US ruling class from the start. Many of these centred around oil. For example there was a debate over whether to prioritise the stability of oil supplies or the access of private companies in the rebuilding effort. If Iraqi oil revenues were used to swiftly repair the damaged oil infrastructure it might deter longer-term private investment. On the other hand a damaged Iraqi infrastructure would disrupt world supplies more immediately (p.52). There were also disagreements over what degree of antagonism could be tolerated between occupied Iraq and the rest of OPEC. At one extreme was the argument to push Iraq out of OPEC altogether. More moderate suggestions were that Iraq should exert pressure within OPEC by increasing production and lowering prices (p.52).

Unfortunately the book does not really show how all these contradictions are bound together. It seems however that the recurring tension is between short- and long-term interests, between the local and national (or national and international), between the immediate drive for profit, and more far-reaching geo-political/economic designs. These tensions/contradictions, which the US carried into the war, were the seeds of many of the disasters to follow. From the beginning, the offensive contained serious structural weaknesses, only visible as hairline cracks in the first place, but soon to develop into major fault-lines.

As much as the US ruling class, Iraqi society as a whole was also divided by the war, in a brutal fashion. The discussion of how the US pursued a policy of divide and rule, and how Iraqis resisted it, is perhaps the strongest aspect of the book. Again and again, Muttitt undercuts the colonialist assumption that sectarian division was somehow inherent in Iraq. In a poll of 2007 ‘two per cent [of people in Iraq] considered “the separation of people on sectarian lines” a good thing, and 98 per cent a bad thing’ (p.274). In 2003 polls showed that ‘only 29 per cent of Iraqis believed it important that a leader should represent “my sect”,’ (p.95). And in 2004, asked which description best suited them – Sunni, Shia or ‘just Muslim’- ‘the largest group, 40 percent, chose the latter (p.97). Muttitt shows how divisions were invented and exacerbated, out of a combination of Western-colonial arrogance/ignorance and strategic drives to undermine the resistance and gain control over the country.

The book mourns the trauma of sectarian conflict. A passage opening the chapter ‘Iraq Divided’ describes the situation when the bloodshed was at its height:

‘By summer 2006 numerous unofficial checkpoints had sprung up across Baghdad, manned by militiamen in police uniforms. The way to survive these was to accelerate through – even if they shot at you, they might miss. If you stopped, your tortured body would be found on a rubbish heap the following day. Official checkpoints, on the other hand, were run by police who had been trained by the Americans to shoot at the first sign of a vehicle not stopping. If they didn’t get you, they’d call in US air support, which would. So you had to stop. On a daily basis, Baghdad residents had to make the choice: two pedals, accelerator and brake, one for life and one for death, and at best a few seconds to decide which to press’ (p.171).

However, it also shows how sectarianism rebounded on the US, and how it was only the Iraqi opposition itself, united against the occupying forces, which was able to begin to overcome the divisions. In the first place, the spiralling violence sparked by sectarianism reached a point where it simply made the country ungovernable (a process known in policy circles as ‘blowback’). Secondly by appointing leaders based on narrow ethnic and religious identities, the US ended up with a proxy government consisting naturally of the most divisive elements, a mixture which proved inherently unstable, prone to endless quarrelling and incapable of driving through the desired colonial policies.

Here we see another tension which came to wreak havoc for the US. On the one hand a divided Iraq was useful. It was not just a way of turning the resistance against itself and distracting people from the real enemy, although this was an important part. Also at stake were much broader plans for a balkanised Iraq, split up into regions, loosely held together by a pliable, decentralised government. Current vice-president Joe Biden imagined an end to Iraq as we know it, proposing the dismantling of the country into three parts (p.274). Again, oil was a primary concern. Giving the regions more control over their oil was a way of further weakening the bargaining power of a state already smashed to pieces by the war.

Yet this drive to weaken the Iraqi state was in fundamental contradiction to the need for secure, long-term access to Iraq’s oil. Moreover, it spurred on the opposition to assume a more nationalist character, united against sectarian violence and against a government seen as corrupt, incapable, atomised and self-interested – as well as repressive and collaborationist. While the US may have crushed the first wave of resistance by a combination of divide-and-rule and military force (not without sustaining serious damage in the process), it left itself wide open to a second, spearheaded by opposition politicians, religious leaders, civil society organisations and trade-unions. It was this opposition that dealt the final blow to the oil law, the object the US had been chasing since 2002. In the end the vote on the law collapsed in 2007.

Fuel on the Fire brings out the dynamic of this period brilliantly, correlating the passage of sectarianism with the struggle for oil. But where does this leave the fate of Iraq and its oil? Since 2007 the bonanza privatisation of Iraq’s oil has gone ahead in the absence of an oil law. ‘Contracts have been signed governing the majority of Iraq’s oil for the next 20 years … the offering of 60 billion barrels of known oil to international companies was the largest in the history of the industry’ (p.359). Technically these contracts are illegal. More importantly they are essentially a bodge-job, hastily assembled by an isolated elite lacking consensus in mainstream political life, let alone among the broad mass of people in the country. They have also split the US leadership, between those who are glad to see the companies finally in there, and those who are weary of the longer term instability. Muttitt’s conclusion is that while Iraq has been battered, bruised and torn apart, there are signs of hope, and the balance of power held by the US and the Maliki government is a fragile one.

Fuel on the Fire ends in late 2010. A few months later the Arab revolutions would explode onto the scene. The first ripples of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt had already reached Iraq by the end of February, when tens of thousands came out on the streets to protest against the government and the occupation. The revolutionary wave confronts a uniquely difficult situation in Iraq, with a country still very much under foreign occupation and a people suffering not just decades of dictatorship but many years of western-imposed sanctions and war. But if Muttitt saw signs of hope in 2010, we surely have many more reasons for hope in 2011. The last sub-heading in the book is on ‘The Iraqi Soul’. Clearly the occupying forces have not managed to win it over (along with hearts and minds). Nor did they in the end succeed in trying to divide it. They have paid the price for trying to crush it and although the struggle is far from over we have every reason to hope that they won’t, ultimately, be able to resist it.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.

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