Yes, the Oil Ministry Was Guarded!

May 7, 2003 Andras Riedlmayer IW&A Documents, 1

Updated May 17, 2003

The New York Post's "embedded" reporter Jonathan Foreman, who boldly
challenges The Weekly Standard's readers to come up with a single photo
showing U.S. troops guarding the Oil Ministry in Baghdad, clearly did
not bother to check the wire service photos available on the news
Websites (at least for a few more days still).

I found several such photos, chronicling the fate of the Oil Ministry
during and after the fall of Baghdad. From these photos, and from
eyewitness news accounts by reporters other than Mr. Foreman (who went to
Baghdad "embedded" with a U.S. Marine unit, but never actually claims to
have been at the Oil Ministry himself) it is possible to reconstruct what
happened to the Oil Ministry during the week following the collapse of the
Baath regime, as the Iraq Museum, the Awqaf Library the National Library,
and the campus of the University of Baghdad were sacked by looters, as
U.S. troops stood by.

The real story turns out to be neither what the Weekly Standard's reporter
would have us believe, nor quite as simple as one might think.

* The story begins during the early hours of Wednesday, April 9,
when the Oil Ministry was hit by a U.S. air strike, setting several
offices on the top floor on fire. See the wire service photo at
Wed Apr 9 11:55 ET PHOTO: The Iraqi oil ministry building in Baghdad
smolders after it was hit by a US air raid.(AFP/Ramzi Haidar)

* As the regime collapsed throughout Baghdad on Wednesday, looters
ransacked the Oil Ministry, making off with computers and furniture.

* Early Wednesday afternoon, while the rooms on the top floor of the
Ministry were still smoldering, U.S. troops arrived with a tank,
took up position in front of the Oil Ministry and chased away
the looters (see report below). AFP File photos at:

* Dexter Filkins reporting from Baghdad, Wed Apr 9 (NY Times 4/10):
As a crowd ransacked the Oil Ministry, Mr. Ali, a ministry clerk,
stood quietly on the sidewalk watching. "I am here to collect my
paycheck," Mr. Ali said, as the looters carried out the guts of the
ministry. "I am very angry. Very angry." Another man, Nizar Muhammad,
hovered along the edges of a crowd, seemingly wanting to enter the
fray, but uncertain. "I am still afraid that Saddam Hussein will be
walking right here," he said. "He's not gone yet. Just you see."

* James Meek in Baghdad (The Guardian, Apr 10):
The immense labyrinth of the Iraqi oil ministry, which was taken over
by marines early yesterday [Wednesday] afternoon, was cleared of
looters. They swarmed around the building, hitting a Saddam statue
over the head with shoes and demanding to be allowed to exercise
their right to loot. "I need to study," implored one man in his
early 20s, mistaking me for a member of the US armed forces. "Let me
take a computer."
One of the marines standing guard on the steps of the ministry,
Lieutenant Paul Gillikin, said: "It looks like a lot of people have
thrown down their arms and aren't fighting any more. From what I hear,
the resistance has been pretty low throughout the city, so it looks
like it might be coming to an end here soon. But the marines are
pretty focused on combat."
Gillikin's message to the looters was encouraging: they should
come back later, when his men had finished a cursory search of
the ministry and moved on. "I'm not going to help them steal, but
at the same time there's no way to stop them," he said.

* By Thursday, Apr 10, U.S. troops had occupied the Oil Ministry and
were keeping the building under close guard, according to eyewitness
accounts by several wire service reporters on the scene:

* Hamza Hendawi, reporting from Baghdad for AP (Apr 10):
U.S. troops occupied the Oil Ministry. But the nine-story Ministry
of Transport building was gutted by fire, as was the Iraqi Olympic
headquarters, while the Ministry of Education was partially burned.

* Craig Nelson, reporting from Baghdad for Cox News Service (Apr 10):
As a convoy of three American armored personnel carriers rumbled
through the walled compound of the Olympic Committee headquarters
in eastern Baghdad, their crews exchanged greetings with the looters,
who juggled the booty in their arms long enough to return the
At least one exception to the leniency by U.S. soldiers was the
Oil Ministry. American troops in desert camouflage, their M-16s
pointed to the street, peered from the overhang above the ministry's

* A photo of the Oil Ministry taken on Sat Apr 12, by AFP/EPA
photographer Christophe Simon shows US troops stringing barbed wire
around the building

* Also on Saturday, Apr 12, AP's Hamza Hendawi reports:
U.S. Army troops and armor blocked access to the main palace grounds.
The Oil Ministry also seemed intact with a heavy U.S. military
presence inside. Also intact were some of the power installations,
power stations and power grids.

* AFP's Catherine Hours in Baghdad reports on Sat, Apr 12:
US troops failed to intervene when top businesses were trashed,
but a fleet of tanks was positioned outside the Oil Ministry.
"Why aren't they letting thieves go into this ministry?" asked
Adnan Hazem, 54. "I'm against Saddam but Bush lied to us. I'm
with my country and I'm afraid for the future."

Aside from the damage to the top floor from the air strike and from the
first day's looting, photos of the building show it to be intact and
well guarded.

* On Weds Apr 16, AFP's Beatriz Lecumberri's report from the Iraqi
capital is headlined: "The oil ministry is the most secure building
in ravaged Baghdad":
Since US forces rolled into central Baghdad a week ago, one of
the sole public buildings untouched by looters has been Iraq's
massive oil ministry, which is under round-the-clock surveillance
by troops.
The imposing tile-colored building in the Al-Mustarisiya quarter
is guarded by around 50 US tanks which block every entrance, while
sharpshooters are positioned on the roof and in the windows.
The curious onlooker is clearly unwelcome. Any motorist who drifts
within a few meters (yards) of the main entrance is told to leave
immediately. Baghdad residents have complained that US troops
should do more to protect against the looters, most of them
Shiite Muslims repressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime
who live in the vast slum known as Saddam City on the northern
But while museums, banks, hotels and libraries have been ransacked,
the oil ministry remains secure.
The symbolism is loaded, considering how vehemently the United States
and Britain denied war opponents' accusations that the campaign to
oust Saddam was driven by oil lust.
"They came from the other side of the world. Do you believe they're
going to do much for me? They've just come for the oil," fumed
Salam Mohammad Hassan, a doctor who lives near the ministry.
Residents noted that the irrigation ministry, just next-door,
was torched.
US forces, who say they cannot prevent looting across the capital
of five million, respond that they are not trying to seize Iraq's
oil resources but preserve them.
"Anyone who says we're protecting this ministry to steal Iraqi oil
doesn't know what's really going on in this country," US Captain
Scott McDonald told AFP at the ministry gates.
The United States, he said, is only safeguarding Iraq's potential
which would otherwise be considered game for looters.
"Oil belongs to the Iraqi people; it's their property. It must
be protected because it'll go, indirectly, to build schools and
hospitals," he said.
McDonald said a few looters had managed to sneak into the
ministry-cum-fortress after US troops entered Baghdad. A few offices
were robbed but nearly all files and archives remain intact, he said.
Coalition forces also say they control all of Iraq's oilfields. [...]

* PHOTO: U.S. soldiers stand guard at their post of the Ministry of Oil
in Baghdad, April 23, 2003. Oil flowed from Iraq's southern
oilfields for the first time since the country was invaded by
U.S.-led forces last month, a U.S. military spokesman said.
(Photo by Petr Josek/Reuters)

The late Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer managed to make her way
into the closely-guarded Oil Ministry at the end of April and interviewed
ministry employees.
Elizabeth Neuffer, "Rebuilding of ministries is key hurdle," Boston Globe,
April 29, 2003

She reports:

[...] At the Ministry of Oil, staff members point out with
some irony that theirs is the one ministry in town without a scratch.
Inevitably, suspicions are raised that the ministry was deliberately
spared, so that the United States can profit from Iraq's oil.

The phalanx of US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division guarding
the ministry and frisking all those coming in and out only heightens
resentment. "I am not happy because we are occupied by the Americans,
in my country, in my city, and in my ministry," said Lawahith
al-Qaissi, the chief of engineers. "And if it is not for our oil,
then why are they here?"

Indeed, of all the ministries, it is the sprawling Oil Ministry
that has the most hustle and bustle inside, as cleaners mop up dust
from recent sandstorms and as newly returning employees hug and kiss
one another for the first time since the war began.

I hope the above helps clarify matters, for the record.

Andras Riedlmayer

Bibliographer in Islamic art
Fine Arts Library
Harvard University

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