"The fundamental issue is, the day after Saddam is removed, the Iraqi oil industry is open for grabs, and it will depend upon the government of Iraq to decide how it will dispense that resource," says oil consultant Rob Sobhani, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "Certainly, American companies would be in a very, very strong position to compete for the right."
Oil is such a huge prize, it could become a consideration as countries decide whether to join the fight. All five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Russian, China, France, Britain and the United States — have oil companies with a stake in who rules Iraq.
"Once the fighting starts, you have to be involved or you are irrelevant," says Emerson. "And it's not just because of the Iraqi oil. It's because of the oil in the entire region. You want to be part of the postwar world in the Persian Gulf."
Don't Be in the Wrong Business
Demonstrating the concern was a surprise visit this summer to the Washington office of the Iraqi National Congress — a U.S.-backed opposition group — by a Russian diplomat interested in Iraqi oil. It was the first such high-level contact in years.
"He basically told me that 'Russia is an old friend to Iraq and we have culture, and industrial bonds and we think we should talk,'" recalls Entifad Qanbar, who heads the opposition group's office.
"I think money was on his mind," says Qanbar. "Oil is money. Money, I mean, because Iraq has an abundance of oil … It represents a way of making money."
Who will make that money? Over the last decade, companies from more than a dozen nations have been in Baghdad signing deals to develop Saddam's oil reserves. Among them are TotalFinaElf, a French company developing the oil field near the Iranian border, and Lukoil, a Russian company developing another oil field in the Iraqi desert.
Both deals are dependent on the end of U.N. sanctions against the Saddam regime. But will the same contracts be honored after a war if Saddam is gone? Not if the Iraqi National Congress has anything to say about it.
"I wouldn't worry if I was doing right business," warns Qanbar. "But if I'm doing wrong business, I should worry."
With war plans on the president's desk and a war resolution before the United Nations, the future of Iraqi oil is one factor that may be on the table with allies in Paris and Moscow.
"If we play our cards right, I think we can get them to see that it is not wise for them to continue to back a loser," says James Woolsey, a former CIA director. "And I think Saddam is going to lose."
Billions in Investment Needed
Oil analysts say things aren't so simple.
"This notion that somehow this is going to become an American oil lake and other countries are going to be excluded, I don't think that's the way the world will work," says Yergin. "If you come in by yourself, you're going to have to write the big check by yourself. You want other people to share the risk with you."
That's because it will take years before Iraq's oil industry can pump more than it is today — 1.7 million barrels a day, now 3 percent of world production. Pipelines are rusty and oil fields are in disrepair. After 20 years of neglect, it will take billions in investments to reap the returns on Iraq's reserves.