THE removal of President Saddam Hussein would open Iraqs rich new oilfields to Western bidders and bring the prospect of lessening dependence on Saudi oil.
No other country offers such untapped oilfields whose exploitation could lessen tensions over the Western presence in Saudi Arabia.
After Kuwait's liberation by US-led forces in 1991, America monopolised the postwar deals, but the need to win international support for an invasion is unlikely to see a repeat.
Russia, in particular, and France and China all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have high hopes of prising promises of contracts in a liberated Iraq from a United States that may need their political support.
President Bush has used the War on Terror to press his case for drilling in a protected Arctic refuge, but predicted reserves in Alaska are dwarfed by the oilwells of the Gulf. Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the issue for the US was as much the security of the Gulf as access to particular oilfields.
"You are looking down the line to a world in 2020 when reliance on Gulf oil will have more than doubled. The security of the Gulf is an absolutely critical issue."
Gerald Butt, Gulf editor of the Middle East Economic Survey, said: "The removal of Saddam is, in effect, the removal of the last threat to the free flow of oil from the Gulf as a whole."
Iraq has oil reserves of 112 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia, which has some 265 billion barrels. Iraqi reserves are seven times those of the combined UK and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea. But the prize for oil companies could be even greater. Iraq estimates that its eventual reserves could be as high as 220 billion barrels.
Three giant southern fields - Majnoon, West Qurna and Nahr Umar have the capacity to produce as much as Kuwait. The first two could each equal Qatar's production of 700,000 barrels a day. "There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Its the big prize," Mr Butt said.
Extraction costs in these giant onshore fields, where development has been held up by more than two decades of war and sanctions, would also be among the lowest in the world. Provided that the US can ensure stability in a post-Saddam Iraq, it would take five years, at most, to develop the oilfields and Iraqs prewar capacity of three million barrels a day could reach seven or eight million, industry experts said.
However, regime change in Baghdad will be of little value to international oil companies unless it is followed by a stable Iraq with a strong central government. Companies cant go in unless there is peace. To develop Majnoon, you need two to three billion dollars and you dont invest that kind of money without stability, one industry analyst said.
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