Did Oil Drive the US Invasion of Iraq?

Sands of Iraq Held World's 2nd Largest Oil Reserve in 2003

US soldier standing guard as Iraqi oil well burns.
Oil Fires Burn In Iraq During 2003 War. Mario Tamba / Getty Images

The United State’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was not without opposition. President George W. Bush argued that the invasion was a vital step in the war on terror by removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power and ridding the Iraq of his weapons of mass destruction then believed to be stockpiled there. However, several members of Congress opposed the invasion, arguing that its actual primary goal was to control Iraq’s oil reserves.

'Utter Nonsense'

But in a February 2002 address, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called that oily assertion "utter nonsense."

"We don't take our forces and go around the world and try to take other people's real estate or other people's resources, their oil. That's just not what the United States does," Rumsfeld said. "We never have, and we never will. That's not how democracies behave."

Nonsense aside, the sands of Iraq in 2003 held oil... lots of it.

According to data from US Energy Information Administration (EIA) at the time, "Iraq holds more than 112 billion barrels of oil - the world's second largest proven reserves. Iraq also contains 110 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and is a focal point for regional and international security issues."

In 2014 the EIA reported that Iraq held the fifth largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, and was the second-largest crude oil producer in OPEC.

Oil IS Iraq's Economy

In a 2003 background analysis, EIA reported that the Iran-Iraq war, the Kuwait war and punishing economic sanctions had greatly deteriorated Iraq's economy, infrastructure, and society during the 1980s and 1990s.

While Iraq's gross domestic product (GDP) and standard of living fell sharply after its failed invasion of Kuwait, increased oil production since 1996 and higher oil prices since 1998 resulted in estimated Iraqi real GDP growth of 12% in 1999 and 11% in 2000.

Iraq's real GDP was estimated to have grown by only 3.2% in 2001 and remained flat through 2002. Other highlights of the Iraqi economy include:

  • Inflation in Iraq was estimated at around 25 percent.
  • Unemployment and underemployment were both high in Iraq.
  • Iraq's merchandise trade surplus was about $5.2 billion, although much of this was gained under UN-sanctioned control.
  • Iraq suffered a heavy debt burden, possibly as high as $200 billion (or more) if debts to Gulf states and Russia were included.
  • Iraq also had no meaningful taxation system and suffered from erratic fiscal and monetary policies.

Iraq's Oil Reserves: Untapped Potential

While its proven oil reserves of 112 billion barrels ranked Iraq second in the work behind Saudi Arabia, EIA estimated that up to 90-percent of the county remained unexplored due to years of wars and sanctions. Unexplored regions of Iraq, the EIA estimated, could have yielded an additional 100 billion barrels. Iraq's oil production costs were among the lowest in the world. However, only about 2,000 wells had been drilled in Iraq, compared to about 1 million wells in Texas alone.

Iraqi Oil Production

Shortly after its failed 1990 invasion of Kuwait and imposition of resulting trade embargos, Iraq's oil production fell from 3.5 million barrels per day to around 300,000 barrels per day.

By February 2002, Iraqi oil production had recovered to about 2.5 million barrels per day. Iraqi officials had hoped to increase the country's oil production capacity to 3.5 million barrels per day by the end of 2000, but did not accomplish this given technical problems with Iraqi oil fields, pipelines, and other oil infrastructure. Iraq also claims that oil production capacity expansion has been constrained by refusal of the United Nations to provide Iraq with all the oil industry equipment it has requested.

EIA's oil industry experts generally assessed Iraq's sustainable production capacity at no higher than about 2.8-2.9 million barrels per day, with net export potential of around 2.3-2.5 million barrels per day. In comparison, Iraq produced 3.5 million barrels per day in July 1990, prior to its invasion of Kuwait.

Importance of Iraqi Oil to the US in 2002

During December 2002, the United States imported 11.3 million barrels of oil from Iraq. In comparison, imports from other major OPEC oil-producing countries during December 2002 included:

Saudi Arabia - 56.2 million barrels
Venezuela 20.2 million barrels
Nigeria 19.3 million barrels
Kuwait - 5.9 million barrels
Algeria - 1.2 million barrels

Leading imports from non-OPEC countries during December 2002 included:

Canada 46.2 million barrels
Mexico 53.8 million barrels
United Kingdom 11.7 million barrels
Norway 4.5 million barrels