Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Did deference to Murdoch oil the wheels of invasion?

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

The Mail on Sunday suggested at the weekend that Tony Blair will face 'scathing criticism' of his role in the launch of the Iraq war when the report of the inquiry under Sir John Chilcot is published in the autumn.

On the same day, the Observer reported that the terms of an oil deal struck between BP and the Baghdad government will provide the company and its Chinese partner with a 'stranglehold' over the Iraqi economy. Even in the midst of his current multifarious travails, Rupert Murdoch may have managed a smile at that one.

Secret documents cited by the Observer reveal that BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Company have been guaranteed full payment at an agreed price for the oil they extract from Iraq's richest oil field at Rumaila - even if the volume falls short of expectations.

The oil field - about 20 miles from the Kuwait border - is about half as big as the entire North Sea and accounts for more than 40% of Iraqi oil production. Oil, in turn, provides 95% of the country's export earnings.

If extraction from the field is curtailed - because of quotas imposed by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, for example - the Iraqi government will pay the partnership for the 'lost' production.

Similarly, if natural disaster, terrorist attack, or any of a series of other possible developments, disrupts production for more than 90 days, the administration will compensate the partnership for the 'loss'.

The Observer speculates that news of the arrangement will likely 'increase the prejudice of those who saw the UK's involvement in toppling Saddam as part of a "war for oil"' - a consideration which Tony Blair has always insisted played no part in his decision to support the drive towards invasion.

This raises the question of what Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch were talking about in the conversations we now know they held in the days leading up to the invasion on March 20, 2003.

Mr Murdoch has, from the outset, been blunt about his reasons for supporting the war: the point was not to find weapons of mass destruction, or to overthrow a tyrant, but to secure economic interests through control of the flow and price of oil.

Just weeks before the invasion, he declared: "The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy would be $20 a barrel for oil. That's bigger than any tax-cut in any country."

Mr Blair and Mr Murdoch had three conversations in the nine days before March 20. They spoke on March 11, immediately after Jacques Chirac had announced that France would veto any second UN resolution sanctioning invasion.

The next day, The Sun proclaimed: 'Like a cheap tart who puts price before principle, money before honour, Jacques Chirac struts the streets of shame. The French President's vow to veto the second resolution ... puts him right in the gutter."

On March 13, as conflict over a second resolution intensified, the two men talked again. On March 14, The Sun returned to the theme: 'Charlatan Jacques Chirac is basking in cheap applause for his "Save Saddam" campaign - but his treachery will cost his people dear ... This grandstanding egomaniac has inflicted irreparable damage."

On the evening of March 19, as the tanks revved up to roar across the border, Blair and Murdoch talked again.

Meanwhile, every one of Mr Murdoch's 127 newspapers around the world (combined circulation more than 40 million) urged its readers to back the war.

One of the suggestions in the Mail on Sunday is that Chilcot will criticise Blair for having kept his own Cabinet in the dark over this period. He had also, of course, chosen to ignore the sound of millions of marching feet.

But, in the urgent hours of March 19, as the most momentous decision of his life loomed close, he found time to take counsel with Mr Murdoch.

What did they talk about? The reason Mr Murdoch wanted war was no secret: oil. Mr Blair, on the other hand, had pledged hand on heart to Parliament and people that oil had nothing whatever to do with it.

Can the pair have discussed an imminent war in which incalculable numbers were certain to die without either alluding to the reason he believed it would all be worthwhile?

One of them can look back in light of the Rumaila contract and feel content that he has no need to bluster, or lie, or to hope that Sir John will rewrite the record.

Relative to Blair, Rupert Murdoch is a man of morality.

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