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The Star-Ledger March 21, 2003

Flames raise fears about repeat of Kuwait sabotage

MAMLAHAH, Kuwait -- Flames lit up the desert sky last night from the direction of Iraq's petroleum center, Al Basrah, apparently confirming the worst fears of U.S. military planners and oil importers that Saddam Husseim had sabotaged his oil wells.

Reporters traveling with the 1st Marine Division saw burning oil wells that sent a black cloud into the night sky under a nearly full moon.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier in the day that three or four Iraqi oil wells may have been set afire in southern Iraq.

No indication was given as to how the fires started.

Iraqi Oil Minister Amir Muhammed Rasheed denied that any oil wells were ablaze, but a battalion commander with a U.S. Marine unit in northern Kuwait confirmed to the Associated Press that "three oil wells have been torched."

The Arab satellite television channel Al-Arabiya also reported that fires had erupted in Iraq's valuable Rumeila South field 50 miles west of Al Basrah and just north of the Kuwaiti border. Rumeila South is one of Iraq's largest fields, with more than 5 billion barrels in reserves. It lies near a similar-sized field called Rumeila North.

Even before the war began, military planners were concerned with protecting the country's 1,685 wells from sabotage that could cause environmental devastation and all but halt the oil production that allied planners are counting on to finance Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

The planners worry that Saddam Hussein, who ordered retreating Iraqi forces in 1991 to torch hundreds of Kuwaiti wells, has ordered his troops to do the same thing in his own country. Early intelligence reports suggested that several Iraq oil fields were rigged with explosives. Military commanders here say they have devised several strategies to prevent or minimize the damage.

Thousands of light-infantry troops are expected to drop into Iraq to seize the oil fields, keep potentially warring ethnic factions apart and prepare for a possible march toward Baghdad.

Military officials in Kuwait say that quickly securing the oil fields is a top priority of the invasion strategy.

"Safeguarding the Iraqi people's oil -- and that's truly how we look at it -- is extremely important to us," Maj. Chris Hughes of the Marines, a spokesman for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait, told the Los Angeles Times. "There is an incredible natural resource available to the Iraqi people to help them re-establish their society, and we will work to make sure it's available, and that a significant environmental disaster is not inflicted."

In 1991 in Kuwait, it took nine months and $20 billion to contain the damage to the oil fields and restore production.

When Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait in February 1991, they attached plastic explosives to well heads and piled sandbags against them to direct the force of the explosions for maximum effect.

The result was geysers of burning crude at 603 wells, serious damage at more than 100 others and widespread environmental degradation. Teams of firefighters from the United States, Canada and eight other countries worked from April until November to put out the fires.

If Saddam were to do the same thing in Iraq, the damage could exceed $50 billion, experts say.

"The wells in Iraq are much higher-yield. They're farther apart. The terrain is more difficult. There may not be enough water nearby," said Robert Ebel, energy program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "It would be one god-awful mess."

A serious disruption of Iraqi oil production probably would be more damaging to Iraq itself than to world economies, many experts say. The thinking is that other countries, notably Saudi Arabia, could quickly boost production to offset the loss of crude from Iraq.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday that even if Iraqi troops sabotage oil fields, supplies of crude oil will be sufficient.

"World energy supplies are more than adequate to compensate for any disruption these acts may cause," Abraham said in a statement issued just before the New York Mercantile Exchange futures market opened.

Military planners here will not comment on how many troops could be assigned to firefighting duty in the event that wells are set ablaze, or how quickly they can bring in the heavy and specialized equipment needed for such work.

John Pike, a military analyst at Globalsecurity.org, told the L.A. Times that U.S. Special Operations forces may have already begun working with locals to disarm explosives and prevent oil field fires.

What if the coalition forces are not able to control the fields before Iraqi saboteurs set fire to them?

There are several companies in the United States and Europe with expertise in fighting oil well fires, some of which were involved in containing the Kuwait damage. But given that they are civilian outfits, it is unclear how quickly they could be flown into a place that might be considered a war zone.

In some cases, especially in remote areas where fire or smoke would not compromise military missions, the wells could simply be left to burn for weeks on end, which is what happened in Kuwait. That could take away billions of dollars of potential revenue for reconstruction and cause severe environmental degradation.


Copyright 2003, The Star-Ledger