Iraq's Oil Age began 75 years ago with a thunderous roar. In the early morning hours of Oct. 15, 1927, a powerful gusher burst out of a well. It surged 50 feet into the air, carrying aloft boulders and rocks. The oil flowed with such fury that 700 local tribespeople were hastily recruited to build dikes and walls to stem the flood. It took eight days to get the well under control.
The site was a place called Baba Gurgur, not far from the city of Kirkuk, in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. (The country itself was almost brand-new, having been cobbled together out of three eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which had collapsed at the end of World War I.)
Hints of oil had been evident around Baba Gurgur for thousands of years. For 35 years before 1927, a wheeler-dealer nicknamed "Mr. Five Percent" -- Calouste Gulbenkian -- had been telling everyone who would listen that the area was awash in oil.
The Baba Gurgur gusher not only opened the region to oil development but, inevitably, started a chain of events that created the oil-based Arab states of the modern Persian Gulf. The first discovery of wells in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait came a decade later, in 1938.
In the early 1970s, petroleum-producing countries around the world carried out a great wave of nationalization. In 1972, Iraq completed its takeover of the Kirkuk concession, which included the well at Baba Gurgur. Four years earlier, in 1968, the Baathist Party had seized control of Iraq. Its strongman, though not yet its president, was Saddam Hussein. -- D.Y.