FAO, on the Iran-Iraq border – From this particular point of view – right in the middle of the rich oilfields of both Iraq and Iran – Saddam Hussein’s decision to freeze all Iraqi oil exports for one month from Monday as punishment for United States support of Israel’s military onslaught in Palestine feels like a nuclear bomb is about to be exploded.
For the moment, the measure affects only 3 percent of the world market. But if followed by other Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations – such as Iran, Libya or Venezuela – it could provide the White House and the Pentagon with the perfect excuse to attack Iraq sooner rather than later. The United States ranks ninth as an importer of Iraqi oil.
The all-important paragraph of Saddam Hussein’s speech – endlessly replayed on Iraqi TV – reads as follows in the official Iraqi News Agency translation: “The Revolution Command Council, the Iraqi leadership of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, and the cabinet in their meeting on April 8, 2002, declare, in the name of the faithful, honest, mujahid, noble, Iraqi people: completely stopping oil exports starting from this afternoon April 8, through the pipelines going to the Turkish port on the Mediterranean, and our ports in Basra for a period of 30 days, after which we will further decide, or until the Zionist entity’s armed forces have unconditionally withdrawn from the Palestinian territories they have occupied and have shown respect for the will of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation to sovereignty, security, dignity and life.”
For the Revolutionary Command Council – the supreme executive power in Iraq – both Baghdad and Ramallah in Palestine represent the same struggle. This is the core of the Iraqi diplomacy for the crucial next few months – while for the Bush administration the two thorny issues are absolutely delinked. The only foreign news on Iraqi TV is Palestine, most of the images borrowed from al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. The pan-Arabism of the regime is more than evident in an array of explosive video clips dedicated to the Palestinian cause.
Recently, in Kufa and Najaf – the holiest cities in Islam after Mecca, Medina and al-Quds (Jerusalem) – Asia Times Online learned about the existence of training camps where Iraqi volunteers are being prepared to fight a jihad against the “Zionist entity” alongside their Muslim brothers in Palestine.
Muhamad Abdel Saheb is in charge of the protocol department of the Kufa mosque – where Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s brother-in-law, was mortally blessed in 631. Kufa is the birthplace of the Shi’ite faith. Saheb says that “we Iraqis are waiting for a sign from the president to declare a jihad. If the president makes a sign, everybody will answer his call.” Saheb stresses that “jihad and political struggle, it is the same thing.”
In Najaf, where the “Prince of the Believers” Ali is buried in a magnificent mausoleum, the imam, Dr Haider Muhamad Hasan Alkelydar, confirmed the existence of the jihad training camps, some of them shown on Iraqi TV. Government officials such as Ahmed, who works in the Najaf administration, are able to say, “I want to be a martyr in Palestine. I can’t do it only because I have to take care of my mother and my wife.”
Fao is also Shi’ite country. On the road from Basra to Fao, about 10 kilometers away, lies Iran, with Iraq and North Korea a part of Washington’s axis of evil. Behind a bridge over the river Al Karon it is possible to see Abadan – arguably the largest refinery in the world – its steel tubes gleaming against the sky. Most of the terrain is still heavily mined, a memory of the Iran-Iraq war of several decades ago. By the roadside, black billboards exhort the glory of Iraqi martyrs.
Fao lies beside the Shatt-el-Arab, where Iran and Iraq are separated by a river stream no wider than 800 meters. About 5,000 fishermen live on the Iraqi side. Iranian police boats patrol the river, enforcing a virtual divide to ensure that the locals don’t practice their fishing in the neighboring country’s waters. The absolute majority of the boats and trawlers carry the Iraqi flag.
On the Iranian margin there’s a “monument to the martyrs.” During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians repeatedly tried to build a bridge over the river, always bombed by the Iraqis. The Iranians thought the occupation of Fao during the war, in 1986, was definitive. But the Iraqis took the city back in 1988 through the operation “Blessed Ramadan” coordinated by Saddam Hussein. After Fao, Iran lost any hopes of winning the war. Fao was rebuilt through a popular campaign, but again partially destroyed by American bombing during the Gulf War in 1991.
To learn about Saddam Hussein’s desire to coordinate an oil shock such as in 1973, uniting all the Arab world is all the more powerful when juxtaposed with the fact that Iran has already approved an Iraqi proposal to use oil as a weapon.
Even before Monday’s decision, oil was the incendiary issue in Iraq. Asia Times Online had definitive assurances from Paris and then Baghdad that it was possible to examine the current state of the Iraqi oil industry in Basra. But then we learned on the spot, on Saturday, that since April 1 there’s been absolutely no way to visit the oilfields. We were still in Baghdad at the time, but we were not informed.
A spokesman from the governor’s office in Basra says that the order came from the Ministry of Communication. He adds that a British Broadcasting Corp team waited in Basra for a week trying to do the same thing, and then left empty-handed. The reason for the ban, “We are in a state of war.” Later, we learn from the Information Ministry in Baghdad that the order actually came from the Oil Ministry: the decision was made by the Revolutionary Command Council.
We remind Basra officials that the Ministry of Information in Baghdad stressed that the governorship of Basra would facilitate any authorizations for a visit to the oil fields in southern Iraq, and also to the port of Abu Bakr. A cabinet secretary finally agrees to set up an interview so that we can have some sort of explanation straight from the governor of Basra. The next day, one Karin Murad, the governor’s director of information, again changes the rules. For starters, all the questions in the interview have to be submitted in advance. And the governor does not take questions related to oil.
Ten minutes later, even more changes. Murad says that Basra was waiting for permission from the Ministry of Interior for the governor to be interviewed – and the permission was denied. The previous day, the cabinet secretary had the permission from the governor himself for the interview. Murad then says that we can “shake the governor’s hands.” We decline.
The episode reveals one of two things: either the Shi’ite southern administration does not care to observe any demands from the central government – and it is already busy preparing a secession; or, more probably, the “state of war” paranoia is a diversionist tactic to cover the fact that any minor decision in Iraq has to be fully scrutinized by the central government. Consequently, for the moment the oil industry is off-limits to “foreign spies.”
As far as Saddam Hussein’s explosive gesture is concerned, for the Iraqi and Arab world mindset, the US has given a free hand for Israel to destroy the Palestinian Authority. An united Arab world might be able to exert some kind of pressure for the US to rein in Ariel Sharon. But it is getting increasingly harder to figure out how Iraq might be able to convince the Arab world and other OPEC countries to stand up against America – and simultaneously prevent a wrathful, inevitable American attack on itself.