New Internationalist

Hands off our oil

May 2008

Unions lead fight against Western oil theft

Five years into the war and occupation of Iraq, and following five missed deadlines, the proposed Iraqi Oil Law remains off the statute books, despite the best efforts of those whom it would benefit. The law would allow foreign oil companies to control the extraction, production and depletion of Iraq’s oil reserves for a generation. Furthermore, it would allow sectarian élites, who already enjoy both military and political power, to sign their own contracts with oil companies, thus reinforcing their long-term economic control.

Dick Cheney, General Petraeus, Condoleeza Rice and the former supreme commander of US forces in the Middle East, Admiral Fallon, have all visited Baghdad in person to push for ratification of the law – yet their diplomatic efforts, flanked by over 150,000 US troops, have failed. Iraqi civil society and embattled parliamentarians are winning.

Inside Iraq, unions, still illegal and subject to Ba’athist anti-union legislation, are leading the fight against this resource theft. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU) is on the frontline. The 26,000-member independent federation is active in 11 state oil and gas companies throughout the country and is the only union to have forced Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to the negotiating table. The IFOU has held numerous protests, conferences and seminars about the Oil Law, popularizing the term ‘Production Sharing Agreements’ – the contractual agreement which has become a by-word for ‘oil theft’. Later drafts of the Oil Law had to drop the term due to ‘media and popular fuss’, according to the Ministry of Oil.

When Iraqi Pipeline Union workers took strike action last summer, Oil Minister Hussein Al Shahristani called the action ‘economic sabotage’ and arrest warrants were issued against the IFOU’s leadership. Iraqi troops occupied the oil fields as US helicopter gunships circled overhead. Despite death threats from both sectarian militias and Government allies, the union remains steadfast in the face of mounting repression. And they are not alone. Power, port, agriculture and steel sector unions have organized a co-ordinating committee in Basra, Iraq’s oil capital, to campaign for union rights and against public sector privatization. The Federation of Workers’ Councils and the General Federation of Iraqi Workers are both involved in the committee and in similar initiatives around the country. Likewise, representatives from all unions are involved in the Iraq Freedom Congress’s ‘Anti Oil Law Front’. Based mainly in Baghdad and connected to the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, it has held conferences and demonstrations in the capital against oil privatization.

Last year over 100 technocrats, including senior former Oil Ministry and Iraqi National Oil Company directors and lawyers, signed a statement urging the Iraqi Government not to support a law which allows for long-term contracts to be signed while the country is still occupied.

So far the law remains unpassable. Yet Oil Minister Shahristani is inviting oil companies to sign under existing Ba’athist legislation and to treat the Oil Law as passed, despite there being no democratic mandate for it or the economic occupation it represents.

The issue of resource sovereignty is uniting Iraqis. A powerful alliance of grassroots civil society organizations and technocrats has been created and it is intent on keeping Iraq’s oil in the hands of the people.

Ewa Jasiewicz
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This column was published in the May 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 411

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