The faces behind the oil America went to war for

Despite the geopolitical importance of Iraq’s oil, and the central role that oil played in its invasion by a US-led coalition in March 2003, 16 years ago people in the US and Europe knew very little about the workers who made the world’s second biggest oil industry function. In October 2003, the US photographer David Bacon went to Baghdad to learn how the occupation was affecting Iraq’s workers and unions. At the Daura Oil Refinery and at other factories in Baghdad, he documented the lives of workers. After meeting Hassan Juma’a, president of the then newly-reorganised Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, two years later he visited Basra in southern Iraq, where most of the country’s oil industry is located. There he took photographs and recorded interviews, determined to “pierce this invisibility. I wanted to give unions and workers, a sense of who their brothers and sisters were, and how they were affected by the occupation.”

Bacon, a former union organiser who has spent over 30 years documenting the struggles of working people around the globe, recalls one story in particular that workers in Basra told him. After the invasion of Iraq, the US occupation authorities put Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR (corporations formerly headed by then-US Vice President Dick Cheney) in charge of civil administration in Basra. In the first weeks of the occupation the companies didn’t pay workers their wages. Workers responded by blocking the gate into the refinery at the shift change with a crane to stop trucks from leaving with the oil. US soldiers then showed up in tanks.

“At first there were only 100 of us, but workers began coming out,”Faraj Arbat, one of the plant’s firemen, told Bacon. “Some took their shirts off and told the troops, ‘Shoot us’. Others lay down on the ground.” Ten of them even went under the oil tankers, brandishing cigarette lighters. They announced that if the soldiers fired, they would set the tankers alight. The soldiers did not fire. Instead, by the end of the day, Halliburton paid the workers the wages they had been withholding. Within a week the oil union in Basra had been reborn. Finally, oil workers stopped work.

Three days of paralysis in the oil fields was enough to force Halliburton out of Basra, marking one of the first big victories of Iraqi’s rekindled union movement.

Bacon came back to the US with stories like these, and photographs showing people what life in the oil fields was like for those working there. US Labor Against the War, a coalition of unions opposed to the US occupation, managed to get visas for a handful of Iraqi trade union leaders to come to the US and tell their stories in person. In Los Angeles, the US oil workers union gave the Iraqis laptop computers. An exhibition of the workers held in 2005 and again in 2006, showed Californian workers how their counterparts in Iraq were treated, often by the same oil monopolies. Iraqis explained that they saw the country’s oil as the people’s property – the only resource that could pay the enormous cost of rebuilding their country after decades of war. “These photographs,” writes Bacon, “were documentation with a purpose. Photographers often speak about ‘putting a human face’ on a particular social problem or movement. These images certainly introduced the human faces of Iraqi oil workers to workers [abroad].” Thanks to the exhibition, Bacon’s photographs helped bring Iraqi oil workers “to the United States where they could speak for themselves, finding common ground with the workers of the country occupying theirs. If they helped to encourage peace and solidarity, the photographs served a good purpose.”

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‘Iraq Free 2005’ is painted on a broken machine on the factory floor of the Basra Oil Refinery on 27 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

Many of the machines, such as pressure vessels and other equipment in the refinery, were damaged during the war with Iran (1980 – 1988), and later from US bombing in early 2003. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, economic data in Iraq was considered a state secret, but according to some estimates, Iraq’s oil industry was worth billions of dollars at the time of the US-led invasion.

Faraj Arbat (left) and members of the fire department of the Basra Oil Refinery, photographed on 27 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

In this photo, the men are discussing the privatisation of the oil industry in Iraq. For decades before the invasion, the industry had been run by the state-owned Iraq National Oil Company. In the aftermath of the invasion, the US government wanted to open up the industry to international investors and multinationals, but this was opposed by oil workers, who said that the oil wealth of Iraq belonged to its people.

Ibrahim Arabi, leader of the union at the Basra Oil Refinery, photographed at his home in Basra on 26 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

A picture of the Islamic cleric Moqtada al Sadr, leader of the Sairoon political alliancesupported by many unions and left-wing groups, is in on the door. Arabi was blacklisted by the oil ministry for his union activities.

Workers on an oil drilling rig in the South Rumaila oil field just outside of Basra, in southern Iraq, on 27 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

At the time these photos were taken, making the rigs function required great skill because the equipment was often old, and economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s made it difficult to obtain parts for repairs. The heat in the Iraqi desert is extreme in the summer, rising to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). Workers also worried about the danger from both occupying military forces and from Saddam Hussein’s old secret police, who were responsible for assassinating a number of trade unionists during the occupation.

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Abdi Settar Ajid, an assistant driller, controls the speed of the drill on an oil rig in Basra on 27 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

At the time he was photographed, Abdi Settar Ajid had been drilling oil wells for 30 years and was working on an oil rig in the South Rumaila oil field just outside of Basra. Controlling the drill is the most highly-skilled job on an oil rig, and Ajid was the most senior and most respected worker in the crew.

Workers eat together on an oil drilling rig in the South Rumaila oil field, photographed on 27 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

Today, oil accounts for 99 per cent of all government revenue in Iraq. The country has the fifth largest reserves in the world and is thought to be the largest unexplored market for oil. But the great wealth produced by oil is yet to trickle down to ordinary citizens. Basra and southern Iraq were rocked by demonstrations in 2018 over lack of electricity, water scarcity and high unemployment. According to Hassan Juma’a of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, “these events are an inevitable result of the government’s neglect and financial corruption in the state system”.

People sit by and walk towards apartment buildings built by the government for the working-class residents of Basra. Photograh taken on 26 May 2005.Photo: David Bacon

At the time these photographs were taken, many of the residential buildings in Basra had spent years surrounded by the wreckage of war, including depleted uranium ammunition. Iraqi doctors report that thousands of people received higher doses of radioactivity than those received from standard natural sources of radiation, due to the use of depleted uranium weapons by the US military. Low level radiation exposure has led to an increase of children’s leukemia, birth defects and breast cancer.

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