By Saeed ShahIndependent
July 5, 2006
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, undertook to lobby the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, in an attempt to land a lucrative oil contract in Iraq for BHP Billiton, according to evidence given to a public inquiry in Australia. In the most blatant evidence to so far emerge about Western businesses jockeying for a slice of Iraq's oil wealth, the Anglo-Australian group BHP Billiton drew up a plan for getting access to the huge Iraqi Halfayah oilfield just weeks after outbreak of war in 2003. BHP Billiton held a secret meeting in May 2003 in London with Sir Malcolm - who has worked as a consultant to the company since 1997 - and Alexander Downer, the Australian foreign minister, to discuss how best to convince the Americans that BHP Billiton should be handed the Halfayah field in southern Iraq.
The evidence came to light as part of a Royal Commission inquiry started late last year in Australia to examine any involvement of the country's businesses in breaching the sanctions that were in place against Iraq before the war. According to the minutes of the meeting, Shell, the oil giant, and Tigris Petroleum, a joint venture set up by BHP Billiton and some of its former executives, were also interested in "securing the Halfayah field investment".
The minutes, which were taken by Australian government officials and labelled "Confidential", note: "Sir Malcolm emphasised that it was critical to register the BHP Billiton/British Dutch [Shell]/Tigris interest early with the US administration... It was a good claim and required lobbying - including from the Australian government - in Washington." The document said that BHP Billiton had briefed the office of Australia's Prime Minister adding, "it has only just started lobbying in the UK but intended to approach Downing Street and the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry]". The minutes said "Sir Malcolm would be seeking an appointment with Vice-President Cheney when the opportunity arose". And Mr Downer, who is still Foreign Minister, "agreed he would raise the matter both in Washington and in Baghdad with Paul Bremer [the US administrator of Iraq]". BHP Billiton was keen on Halfayah because it had spent years in clandestine negotiations with Saddam Hussein's regime in 1990s over developing the oilfield, the document said.
Greg Muttitt, of the campaigning group Platform, said: "The idea seems to be that, all you have to do to get oil contracts in Iraq is register your interest with the Americans. This is a shocking way to operate. It should be up to the Iraqis to award contracts, not an occupying force. We've heard all the denials from Blair and Bush that this war was about oil. And here we have Rifkind saying he'll arrange it through the Americans."
Sir Malcolm, who was foreign secretary from 1995 to 1997 and is now MP for Kensington and Chelsea, said yesterday that he had no recollection of promising to take BHP Billiton's case to Mr Cheney, though it was "entirely possible" that BHP Billiton was seeking to influence US opinion. Sir Malcolm said that he has had no contact with Mr Cheney in recent years, except in 2001, when he met Mr Cheney with BHP Billiton colleagues. He also said that he had no knowledge of any contact between the company and the Iraqi regime in the 1990s.
A spokesman for BHP Billiton said: "We take the evidence given during the [UN] Oil For Food Inquiry very seriously and BHP Billiton is extremely concerned about the issues relating to BHP in the Royal Commission." BHP has set up its own internal inquiry.
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