The Unresolved Puzzle of the Invasion of Iraq

By: Prof. Sandra Halperin | CIWAS Director discusses the questions answered and the ones posed by Chilcot Report.


5/8/2017 4 min read

The Chilcot Report, which focuses on the activities, views and relations between Tony Blair and George Bush, leaves key puzzles unresolved. Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, argued in lengthy testimony that by the end of February 2003 hundreds of inspections had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So, one puzzle is why the US and UK appeared to be convinced that there was a threat of overriding urgency when inspectors and intelligence agencies, as well as nearly all the rest of the international community, including France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iraq’s traditionally hostile Arab neighbours, were convinced there was none. Blix also argued that the inspection regime was still working and would be completed in ‘months, not years’. So a second puzzle is why the US and UK refused to wait the remaining months needed to complete weapons inspections. What was the necessity of an invasion to bring about regime change by mid-March 2003?

To answer the first question requires a consideration of what differentiates the US and Britain from, say, the other Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, as well as France and much of the rest of the international community. The report suggests that George Bush was, for reasons left unexplained, committed to regime change in Iraq and that Tony Blair, in thrall to the US-British ‘special relationship’, endeavoured to shape and direct Bush’s agenda in ways that would quash opposition both in Britain and throughout the broader international community. The nature of the ‘special relationship’ that features so prominently as an underlying theme in the Chilcot Report is not fully understood. A defining factor in this relationship has been US-UK mergers in oil, defence, and finance.

In both countries, the defence and oil industries are disproportionately powerful and wealthy vis-à-vis the rest of the economy, and the economies of both have become increasingly dependent on exporting weapons and defence-related infrastructure and services and the pursuit of profit-making opportunities on behalf of their increasingly integrated oil industries. As this snapshot suggests, the Anglo-American relationship is a very special one, indeed. Standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’, Britain and the US have worked to tear down barriers erected by national governments through various schemes of privatisation: ‘shock therapy’ in Eastern Europe and Russia; and elsewhere of ‘structural adjustment’ and post-war ‘reconstruction’.

The same agenda is at the heart of their ‘democratisation’, ‘civil society’, and ‘good governance’ initiatives and it is, as well, of their pursuit of regime change which entails, not only the removal of particular individuals, but a complete economic restructuring along the same lines as all of the above. The oil sectors that were nationalised beginning in the 1970s have been a key target of the American-British political-military alliance. Until it was nationalised in 1972, Britain’s Iraqi Petroleum Company owned the entire territory of Iraq. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war began a wave of nationalisation throughout the Middle East and OPEC countries, shifting ownership of the vast majority of the world’s oil resources to state oil companies. Like other countries, the UK and US paid higher oil prices, but most of these extra funds flowed back to their own financial and defence sectors. However, unlike the Saudis and other Arab ruling groups who invested their petrodollars in Western financial and defence industries, Iraq used its increased oil revenues to invest, not in Western banks and armaments, but either internally or in the Eastern block.

Oil after Iran-Iraq War

At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, with its economy in shambles, Iraq faced mounting pressure from Kuwait for repayment of loans (which had helped to finance the war against what had been, and remained at that time, a common enemy). Confronted with Kuwaiti intransigence on this and other long-standing Iraqi grievances, and with the failure to get help from the international community, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Rebuffing Soviet, European, and Arab diplomatic initiatives, the US and UK launched the first ‘Gulf War’ and, after the war, used their Security Council vetoes to block the lifting of sanctions the UN had imposed on Iraq prior to the onset of fighting. From this and US/UK actions that followed, many concluded that the object of Anglo-American policies after the conclusion of the Gulf War was the same as that of the War itself: to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein and replace it with a government that would open the country to exploitation by American- and British-based transnationals.

Sanction and Iraqi Oil Contestation

Between 1997 and 2001, Iraq tried to gain political support for lifting the sanctions by concluding contracts for oil concessions among three permanent Security Council nations: France, Russia, and China. US and UK firms watched from the side-lines while European and Chinese firms concluded deals enabling them to exploit Iraqi oil reserves with an estimated value of several trillion dollars. All of these deals could not take effect until UN sanctions were lifted – and sanctions could not be lifted until the UN certified Iraq as being free of WMD. Once the UN declared Iraq to be free of WMD, sanctions would be lifted and French, Russian and German firms would  begin rebuilding and exporting Iraqi’s vast reserves while, given Saddam Hussein’s hostility towards the U.S. and Britain, U.S. and British companies would be sidelined. Thus, Anglo-American oil and other corporate interests needed to prevent the lifting of sanctions until a new Iraqi regime could be installed that would nullify European and Asian agreements and welcome US and British firms back in. The day after British and American land forces entered Iraq, a new UN Security Council Resolution dropped all sanctions against Iraq, ‘effectively ended involvement of other countries with Iraqi oil via the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme and voided the various oil exploration contracts that Iraq signed during the 1990’s with France, Russia and China, allowed the US and UK to completely control Iraq’s oil production revenue, and established a joint US/UK administered ‘Iraqi Assistance Fund’ which reconverted Iraqi’s oil exports back to the dollar.

In sum: the puzzles left unresolved by the Chilcot Report dissolve with the recognition that the US and UK were committed to bringing about regime change in Iraq in order to replace a government whose hostility towards US and British investment put enormous profit-making opportunities out of reach of Anglo-American industries. They rushed to bring about regime change before the conclusion of the inspections and the consequent lifting of sanctions, as this would have enabled the contracts concluded between Saddam and British and US competitors to go forward. Instead, a new Iraqi regime was installed that nullified European and Asian agreements and welcomed US and British firms back in, one which has now re-written the Iraqi constitution to open up the country’s oil fields to domination by US and British corporations.