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Published: Wednesday, 7/9/2008

Oil, after all

CRITICS of the American-led invasion of Iraq have insisted all along that the pursuit of oil motivated the military action. While the Bush Administration has always denied such assertions, there is new and tough-to-dispute evidence that the enormous Iraqi petroleum reserves were indeed the lure for an administration with obvious ties to the oil industry.

The latest proof comes in revelations about an oil deal consummated between Hunt Oil of Dallas and the regional Kurdistan government of northern Iraq. The problem with the deal is that it runs counter to an official U.S. policy warning against such contracts, which undercut the authority of Iraq's central government.

The real kicker: According to documents released by a congressional committee, the Bush Administration not only knew that the Texas oil company - whose CEO is a friend of President Bush - was signing the deal with Kurdistan officials, but actually seemed to welcome it. Never mind that any oil deal with the Kurds absent approval by Iraq's central government, or the existence of a national oil law, is bound to needlessly elevate tension in that country.

And it did, angering Iraqi officials who condemned the Kurdistan deal as illegal. The State Department insisted to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that it had strongly discouraged Hunt Oil's chief executive, Ray Hunt, against proceeding with business interests in Kurdistan.

But, in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), the committee chairman, said e-mails and documents released by his panel "tell a different story about the role of administration officials." Communication between the administration and the company indicate that plenty of people were aware of the pending oil contract with Kurdish government officials and did nothing to prevent it.

Mr. Hunt, a generous political donor to Mr. Bush, briefed an advisory board to the President, of which he was a member, about pursuing serious business interests in Kurdistan. The oilman also informed State Department officials directly of his intentions beforehand, as is evident by a flurry of e-mails that indicate no U.S. government objection to the company reaching a deal with the regional Kurdish government.

Even as its apparent complicity in the Kurdistan agreement is uncovered, the Bush Administration struggles to defend the help it gave five major Western oil companies in winning no-bid consulting contracts with Iraq's Oil Ministry.

These tell-tale incidents lend support to suspicions that the 2003 invasion was less about sowing democracy in Iraq - or ridding the world of Saddam Hussein - and more about the black gold to be found beneath its blowing sands.

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