Lord Browne, chief executive of BP and one of New Labour's favourite industrialists, has warned Washington not to carve up Iraq for its own oil companies in the aftermath of any future war.
The comments from the most senior European oil executive, who has impeccable political connections in the UK, will be seen by anti-war protesters as further proof that US president George Bush has already made his mind up about an early attack.
They will also serve to underline concern that the US is primarily concerned with seizing control of Saddam Hussein's oil and handing it over to companies such as ExxonMobil rather than destroying his weapons of mass destruction. Britain's biggest company is reviewing what impact a regime change in Baghdad would
have on its own business and global crude supplies.
Both London and Washington have been lobbied by the UK oil giant, which is concerned that European companies could be left out in the cold.
"We have let it be known that the thing we would like to make sure, if Iraq changes regime, is that there should be a level playing field for the selection of oil companies to go in there if they're needed to do the work there," said Lord Browne yesterday at a briefing on the company's results.
Lord Browne said that most exploration for new supplies had halted there when the Iraqis nationalised their industry. But he believed there was a plenty of oil and gas waiting to be discovered in Iraq and that BP should be in prime position
to capitalise because it had found most of the country's oil before being thrown out in the 1970s.
BP said it had had no contact with Baghdad since 1989. Iraq's reserves amount to 115bn barrels of oil, making it the biggest source of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia.
Lord Browne's views will be listened to carefully in Downing Street because the BP executive team has such close links with the UK government that it was once dubbed Blair Petroleum. A number of former BP executives, such as Lord Simon, have been seconded into Whitehall while one of Mr Blair's personal assistants, Anji Hunter, joined Lord Browne's team.
Impending war with Iraq has given a financial boost to BP and other western oil firms by driving up the price of oil to $27 per barrel.
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