An old Israel-Iraq oil line ... reopening?

Nothing could be better designed to undermine the coalition's promise that Iraq's oil should benefit its own people than Israel's proclaimed wish to "reopen" a long-unused pipeline from Iraq's Kirkuk oil fields to Israel's Mediterranean port of Haifa.

Israel's National Infrastructure Minister Joseph Paritzky was quoted in a March 31 Ha'aretz article saying that Israeli and Jordanian officials would soon meet to discuss reviving the line. Built by the British in the 1940s, the line crossed west from Iraq through Jordan to British-ruled Palestine (today's Israel). Upon the 1948 birth of Israel and the immediate eruption of war with Iraq, Jordan and other Arab neighbors forced its shutdown and the diversion of Iraqi oil through a branch line to Syria.

Arabs reacted with predictable fury to Mr. Paritzky's suggestion that the oil of a post- Hussein Iraq could flow to the Jewish state, to be consumed or marketed from there. Jordan's information minister instantly declared the story about Israel-Jordan meetings "devoid of truth," because Jordan's "relations with Israel are now very cold."

Despite the wishful thinking among President Bush's neoconservative and pro-Israel advisers, a post-Hussein Iraq is unlikely voluntarily to warm to Mr. Sharon's government. Since 1948, Israel and Iraq have been implacable foes. Unlike Egypt, Jordan, or Syria, Iraq has never been willing even to discuss an armistice with Israel, let alone a peace accord like those Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan - this despite some wishful mediation attempts by US and other Western business interests during Saddam Hussein's presidency.

Technically, Baghdad has been in a continuous state of war with Israel since 1948. It sent armies to fight Israel in 1948 and 1967, and to back up Syria's defense of Damascus in the October 1973 war. It has supported several Palestinian guerrilla and terrorist organizations, and during the current Palestinian intifada, Hussein subsidized families of Palestinian suicide bombers and other activists. Israeli officials have been rejoicing over the US-led war coalition's elimination of Iraq as a principal strategic foe of the Jewish state.

Nevertheless, the authoritative Cyprus oil journal Middle East Economic Survey (MEES) reports that the Washington hawks may insist that the next Iraqi government rebuild the Kirkuk-Haifa oil line, probably with major US firms. Walid Khaddouri, the MEES editor, explains that the idea actually involves building a whole new pipeline because the old one has been "cannibalized" and dismantled over the years, leaving no more than its old route traced on maps. This would add at least a billion dollars more to postwar financial burdens.

The idea is economically tempting for Israel and some of its friends, especially those whose firms might profit from such a project. Oil-poor Israel, MEES reports, wants high-quality Kirkuk crude oil for its Haifa refinery. Israeli refineries currently use Russian, West African, Egyptian, and other crude oils.

Politically, the scheme is a potential bomb. Its implementation could ignite a new explosion in the chain of reactions to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, now beginning to reverberate throughout the troubled Middle East.

John K. Cooley is an American author and former Monitor correspondent who has covered the Middle East and North Africa for more than 40 years.

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