Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The curse of oil

This is from a Dubai paper. Note that there is no mention of the international dimension in his talk about oil. One of the Shia groups fighting for Basra is the militia of Al-Sadr.

The curse of oil

22 May 2007

CIVIL wars such as those in Sudan, Nigeria, and other parts of the world often have a strong economic dimension. The fighting and spilling of blood are not always motivated by nationalist feelings or aspirations, or by the desire to protect human, ethnic, religious, or cultural rights of certain minorities.

History has proven that civil war leaders and warlords are among the worst violators of human rights, and many of them are no better than criminals or dictators working for self promotion, personal wealth and glory. Thus the fight is not always for what is visible above the ground, or what is publicly claimed as justification for the civil war, but in certain cases for what is hidden from view. If we exclude the genuine and rightful struggles for the right of self-determination, in most other cases of civil wars it is rare that people will fight and die for worthless land; the economic dimension was, and remains, a major underlying factor in internal and external conflicts.

During the last four years, news about the escalating violence in Iraq has dominated media headlines across the world. Media reports have been full of the news of violence in the by now well-known hotspots like Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Diyala. However, there is very little news about the violence endured by Iraqi people living in other regions and cities of the country.

The daily violent struggle in the two oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Basra has a special meaning for Iraqi people and is of significance for the state. Kirkuk and Basra have no geographical link between them, they are separated by hundreds of miles; one is a main city in the north of Iraq, the other is the main city in the south. Nevertheless, there is a common link between the two cities as they are both considered ‘jewels in the crown’ in the country’s oil production sector. Indeed, for the last three years, the two cities have experienced a virtual civil war. With the country sliding gradually towards chaos and possible disintegration, the crucial question is: who is going to control the country’s oil wealth? Although Iraq, until now, is able to function as a ‘state’, albeit with a weak central government, the battle for the control of the country’s oil wealth is already in progress, if not in an advanced stage.

In Kirkuk, the two Kurdish parties, with the support of the armed militia Peshmarga and the participation of many Kurdish security services and party cadres, are working very hard to secure the city and the entire Kirkuk province, and establish control over the oil resources of the province. The Kurdish leadership has realised that the present situation in Iraq offers them a historic and probably unrepeatable window of opportunity to impose Kurdish control over the oil-rich city and secure economic viability for a future Kurdish political entity, eventually leading to the declaration of the first Kurdish independent state. The strategy to bring Kirkuk under Kurdish control is based on taking full advantage of the chaotic situation prevailing in Iraq.

The Kurds today appear as the strongest and most organised political group on the Iraqi political scene. They understand that neither the Iraqi government nor the US will be able to compel them. To secure control over Kirkuk, the two Kurdish parties adopted a multi-stage strategy. First, they pushed their militias to impose control over the city and take over most of the key positions in the provincial administration. At the same time, they initiated a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ to force the non-Kurdish population of the city (Arabs and Turkmans) to move out. They were able to impose Article 140 in the new Iraqi Constitution which calls for the "normalisation" of the situation in the province. Coupled with other practical measures already implemented on the ground by the Kurdish leadership, they may well be on their way to secure the "Kurdisation" of Kirkuk and its oil wealth.

In Basra, the situation is slightly different. The bloody fight for the control of the city and its enormous oil wealth has been going on for the last four years, and remains unsettled. There is an ongoing Shia-Shia conflict between a number of rival Shia militias, and organised criminal groups dominate the city’s political and security scene. Basra has been effectively out of the central government’s control since the invasion of the country, and it is unlikely that government’s authority can be restored in the near future. The Baghdad government is paralysed, and unable or unwilling to stop the sectarian "cleansing" in Basra, or the ongoing fight for control of the province and its resources. The rival Shia political groups, small and big — many depending on support coming from across the international borders — are working hard to secure some formula that could guarantee a partial or complete separation of Basra from the rest of the state. A de facto separation is now in existence, which means that Basra and its oil wealth are at the mercy of ambitious and ruthless local warlords who have no consideration for or attachment to the country or its national interests.

In view of the current developments in both major oil cities, it seems that the vicious hyaenas have started their feast, even before the death of the prey.

Dr Mustafa Alani is the Director of the Security and Terrorism Program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai



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