TAL ABTA, Iraq — Abu Luay once battled US troops as a teenager in a series of ugly urban battles. Now the 27-year-old says he’s ready to sacrifice his family to fight the Americans again if the US follows through on President Donald Trump’s suggestion on Saturday to take his country’s oil.
“I participated in the attack against the Americans by attacking them with mortars and roadside bombs, and I’m ready to do it again,” said Abu Luay, an Iraqi security official who provided his nom de guerre and said he was not allowed to speak to the press. His is now fighting along the frontlines with armed Shiite groups in northwest Iraq. “We kept our ammunition and weapons from the time the Americans left for fighting ISIS. But once ISIS is gone we will save our weapons for the Americans.”
Abu Luay and others spoke to BuzzFeed News one day after Trump made a series of explosive remarks to CIA employees — including suggesting that Americans should have taken Iraq’s oil and floating the possibility of seizing the Middle East country’s primary export and natural resource at some point in the future.
“If we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place,” Trump told CIA employees in a speech broadcast on television. “So we should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance.”
Trump argued repeatedly during the campaign last year that the US should have taken Iraq’s oil. His statement Saturday came a day after his inauguration as the 45th US president, a day on which his new administration declared that its top priority is defeating ISIS jihadis in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other countries.
Trump’s assertion that Iraqi oil led to the creation of ISIS does not square with facts. ISIS was formed out of several jihadi and nationalist rebel groups that sprang up in Iraq after the US invasion, eventually taking root in Syria amid the chaos of that country’s civil war. Oil became an important component of ISIS’s finances shortly after it was formed and mostly in Syria. ISIS financing sources include oil and oil products as well as taxes, tolls, and kidnappings for ransom.
Iraqis at this tiny outpost near the front lines of the ISIS battle warn that any attempt by the US to seize their oil would destabilize the country, and the region, and possibly undermine the war against ISIS that Trump has described as a top priority.
“There’s no way Trump could take the oil unless he launched a new military front and it be a new world war,” said Kareem Kashekh, a photographer who works for the Popular Mobilization Units, a new branch of Iraq’s armed forces consisting of former militiamen and volunteers fighting against ISIS.
“He cannot do it. He cannot succeed,” said Dawoud Ali, a 30-year-old Baghdad resident and a member of Ansar al-Aghida, one of the Shiite militias fighting against ISIS. “Of course I would fight the Americans if they came for the oil.”
Trump’s comments risk relations with a key player in the US-led war against ISIS. Iraq is currently the primary US partner in the war against ISIS, with the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and members of the country’s various sectarian and ethnic communities fighting the jihadi group.
Sitting inside a small house used as a base for reporters covering the Popular Mobilization’s efforts against ISIS, some suggested seizing Iraqi’s oil would be counter-productive, noting that Iraq recently took a $5.3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in part to help pay for the war against ISIS.
Short of war, they said, Trump could use international institutions and courts to divert Iraq’s oil money to the US instead of outright seizing it. “They are the Great Satan,” said Ali, the Shiite fighter. “If they cooperate with the central government maybe they can succeed in taking the oil.”
But that, too, could backfire as Iraqis would likely respond by electing a hardliner like former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is considered close to Iran and is favored by Shiite armed groups close to Tehran, they said. Many critics say Maliki’s sectarian policies helped ISIS take root in Iraq’s Sunni communities.
"If they came with lawyers, maybe they could get away with taking our oil money with a weak person like Abadi, but if we have a strong person like Maliki, it wouldn’t work,” said Hussam Abdel-Wahed, 25, and a member of the Popular Mobilization’s media office.
“We will kick out all of the corrupted politicians,” said Abu Luay. “We now have a wide base and we will go to the ballot boxes. We will use bombs and explosives, and we’ll also go to the ballot boxes if that’s what it takes.”