Saturday, March 03, 2007

An Oil Stake In Iraq's Heart?

When I saw that Zalmay Khalilzad had an op-ed in today's Washington Post entitled "A Shared Stake in Iraq's Future" , I had hoped to read from the neoconservative US ambassador to Iraq (and soon to be ambassador to the UN) a discussion of the coming conference of "neighbours" in Iraq and why everyone should see that a stabilized and united Iraq isn't just good for Iraqis, or the region, but for the world. That "national intesrest", other than Iraq's, should be put aside in the push towards that stability. That, regardless, every participant should understand that using Iraq as a proxy for other issues on the flimsiest of evidence is a dangerous game. That, in short, the US would be putting all diplomatic options on the table at the conference.

It would have been a good omen for the conference but also for Khalilzad's future time at the UN and for the chances of the US returning to the diplomatic fold.

I was disappointed.

What I got was a long PR release on how the "national hydrocarbon law approved this week by Iraq's Council of Ministers, oil will serve as a vehicle to unify Iraq and will give all Iraqis a shared stake in their country's future." It seems, to a casual observer, that it was always all about the oil money after all.

Let's get real - the oil bill is important, sure. But it isn't the whole story - it still has to pass the crucial test of whether it will actually be observed.

The Kurds, for instance, might still insist that deals made before the bill is passed into law are exempt and certainly seem ready to ignore Provision 4 "All parties must abstain from signing new contracts agreements related to exploration and production activates in Iraq until this law is fully enacted." Others may well object to the unconstitutional provision that says the bill can become law even if the Council of Representatives rejects it.

Kurdish officials are also at pains to point out that the bill does not resolve how the Iraqi government will divide revenues from contracts between central and regional governments - which means the divisive nature of any oil revenue feuds is simply put off until another some-day in a deliberate fudge reminiscent of unfilfilled promises over the Iraqi constitution.

Meanwhile, Turkey is saying it will negotiate directly with the central government for drilling rights in Kurdish Iraq arther than with Kurdish leaders - something that's bound to inflame tempers. Others are sceptical about the bill's longevity, saying it will be repealed by the first Iraqi government that isn't under the West's thumb.

Khalilzhad writes:
This is the first time since 2003 that all major Iraqi communities have come together on a defining piece of legislation. A national reconciliation that stabilizes Iraq can be achieved if similar compromises are made on the future of de-Baathification and on amending the constitution. The agreement on the oil law should give us confidence that Iraqis are willing and able to take the steps needed for Iraq's success.
One would be more confident of the breakthrough nature of this legislation if not for the fact that other breakthrough legislation - and the constitution is the huge elephant case in point - hadn't been hailed in the same glowing terms only to be co-opted by sectarian interests and then allowed to sit unattended for over a year.

Meanwhile other issues are presenting at least as dangerous a threat to any hopes of Iraqi unity. Some, like the currently escalating sectarian violence engendered by charges of rape, are bottom-up and cannot be solved by fiat. Others, such as signs that Maliki has decided to save his own ass by becoming the strongman almost-dictator the US neocons have always wanted, will further drive sectarianism but seem unlikely to worry folks like Khalilzhad much. After all, a strongman will keep the oil money flowing in the right direction...out of Iraq.

For the future US ambassador to the UN to ignore all of this in his hymn of praise for oil privatization in Iraq does not bode well for the future.

No comments: