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The Iraq Oil Questions

January 31, 2003

In streets teeming with blue-jeaned demonstrators and in European Parliament halls filled with blue-suited politicians, men and women wave signs reading "No war for oil" or the snappier "No blood for oil." Allegations that the United States needs a war with Iraq just to fill the tanks of SUVs, and intends to pay for the war with Iraq's own oil, are sufficiently common that Washington should address them directly and often.

For months, President Bush has emphasized that Saddam Hussein must be deposed because he has used chemical weapons against his own people and his enemies, possesses biological and chemical weapons and is trying to develop nuclear arms. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Bush warned of "outlaw regimes" that can provide those lethal weapons to terrorists, an alarm that rings louder after 9/11. He said that in the event of war, the U.S. would "bring to the Iraqi people food and medicines and supplies -- and freedom."

He did not mention the commodity that the U.S. needs and the Iraqis possess in abundance. The reserves of oil beneath the Iraqi desert are second only to those of Saudi Arabia. Since its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and humiliating defeat a few months later, sanctions and deteriorating equipment have forced Baghdad to pump far less. Petroleum experts estimate that it could cost $5 billion to restore the oil fields to the levels pumped before the Gulf War. Full production would repay that amount and more within a year.

Defense Department officials say U.S. invasion plans call for securing Iraq's oil fields as quickly as possible. That's prudent in that Hussein torched Kuwait's oil fields after the Gulf War, creating an economic and environmental disaster. It should not mean taking over Iraq's oil production, a distinction the White House cannot make often enough.

Oil pumped from Iraq could indeed help pay to repair war damage and finance the operations of a post-Hussein government. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week that he was uncertain how Iraq's oil revenue would be allocated after a war but that the oil "belongs to the Iraqi people" and would not be exploited for the United States' own purposes. It's a pledge that should come from the White House as well as Powell.

Powell was especially eloquent last weekend at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Answering a questioner worried about U.S. use of force, he said that in sending troops abroad for decades and seeing many of them die, "we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in."

In the world of oil commerce, Russian and French oil companies are worried about losing business in Iraq. Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's oil company backgrounds certainly give critics reason to believe the U.S. leaders know and favor U.S.-based oil companies.

On all of these issues, the administration needs to be clear and forceful about its intentions concerning Iraqi oil. Both the American people and European allies need the clarity.

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