In Iraq War, to the Victor Goes the Oil

"People are not going to just whip out their checkbooks and start writing checks with nine zeros," says Yergin. "What a company needs to know is, is there going to be some political stability? How vulnerable are they going to be? They're also going to want to know, are their terms going to be stable? Are the rules of the game going to change?"

And there are other sensitive questions about the outcome of a U.S.-led invasion in the heart of the Middle East.

"The governments are the way they are, in part, because we haven't pushed democracy, and one of the reasons we haven't pushed democracy is we've just been willing to go along with whoever would sell the cheapest oil, however bad the government was," says Woolsey.

Even without Saddam, instant democracy is not likely. For one thing, Saddam's iron rule has kept Iraq united — the real fear is that Iraq will splinter into rival groups once he is gone.

In contrast, the hope: A democratic Iraq would be an oil-rich ally with a government friendly to Washington.

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