The new BIA: Bureau of Iraqi Affairs

By Travis Snell

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Iraqi oil well


bout two months before the United States and United Kingdom armed forces began bombing and invading Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraq’s oil “belongs to the Iraqi people” and the United States would hold Iraqi oil reserves in trust if (when) it occupied Iraq after a war.

Powell also said Iraqi oil “will not be exploited for the United States’ own purpose.” He said the United States is “studying different models” of how Iraq’s oil fields would be operated under a U.S.-led occupation and that they “will be held in trust for the Iraqi people, to benefit the Iraqi people.”

My only thoughts when I read that, “Good luck Iraq. You’re going to need it if the United States holds your oil in trust. Native Americans must be laughing everywhere.”

In 1887 when the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, it divided much of the remaining land collectively held by tribes into individual plots ranged in size from 40 acres to 160 acres. It was supposed to have turned Native Americans into farmers. The effects were demoralizing. The government allotted vast amounts of the tribal lands to mining, grazing, timber and irrigation businesses, and the money accrued by the sale or lease of these lands was held “in trust” by the government and was to be given back to Native Americans in the form of services and individual payments. It didn’t work.


In 1996, a group of Native American citizens, the Native American Rights Fund and the Intertribal Monitoring Association filed the largest class-action lawsuit in history involving the U.S. government. The suit called for restitution of $100 billion from Native American trust funds the government has lost, paid to the wrong people or simply withheld.

Since the suit’s filing, two consecutive Secretaries of the Interior have been found in contempt of court for blocking investigations and refusing to carry out court-ordered reforms. It’s revealed a history of corruption, incompetence and theft by the government, especially the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s revealed that the BIA paid out approximately $700 million in tribal funds to the wrong people. It’s also shown that the BIA has been paying money into the accounts of 21,000 people who are deceased, and is withholding $50 million owed to individual Native Americans because it has no address for them on file.

Can we expect the same incompetence from the U.S. government with Iraq’s “in trust” oil? I wouldn’t rule it out if only the U.S. government handles the job.

Iraq’s oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s, which could mean billions of dollars a year for the Iraqi people. Powell said he was not certain how Iraq’s oil revenue would be allocated after a war, but he indicated that U.S. officials are not seeking to use the funds for reparations. However, he did not rule out the use of Iraq’s oil revenue to cover a portion of postwar peacekeeping and reconstruction expenses incurred by the United States or other nations.

Asked if foreign oil companies such as Halliburton or the government-owned Iraqi National Oil Company would control the oilfields, Powell said, “We don ’t have an answer to that question yet.”

According to one Associated Press story, conservatives in the Bush administration favor bypassing the Iraqi National Oil Company, taking short-term control of the oilfields and opting for privatization. With this privatization, anti-war protesters claimed the Bush administration plans to release Iraqi oil on to the world market, reduce the dominance of Saudi Arabia with its 262 million barrels of reserves and engineer the slashing of oil prices to benefit the U.S. economy. How much would the Iraqi people benefit from that? Are they to get payments and services from these sales as the Native Americans were promised from their natural resources?

It comes down to this: When the United States takes control of the Iraqi oil after the war, will it do a better job of holding “in trust” that country’s oil for its people than it did for Native Americans’ natural resources? I hope so. And exactly who will handle the job, the BIA (Bureau of Iraqi Affairs)?

I’m not debating whether or not the U.S. and U.K. armed forces should or shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. That point is moot. I just hope the U.S. government has learned a lesson when dealing with “in trust” issues, and I hope the Iraqis get a better shake than what Native Americans got because after 30 years of Saddam Hussein, they deserve it.

About the author
Travis Snell has served as a staff writer and copy editor for the Cherokee Phoenix. He earned his print journalism degree from Oklahoma City University.

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