U.S. aims to avert oil field sabotage

Pentagon says Hussein might destroy wells

January 25, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon suspects that Saddam Hussein will sabotage his oil fields should the United States invade Iraq, potentially creating an economic and ecological disaster that could dwarf his destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields at the close of the Persian Gulf war, a senior defense official said yesterday.

As a result, the Pentagon is working on plans to quickly seize and secure the two vast oil fields in southern and northern Iraq, the official said. Special Operations forces or rapidly deployable conventional troops, such as the 82nd Airborne Division, might be used.

"There are a variety of intelligence sources that leave us with ... the belief that Iraq has an intent to cause damage or destruction to their oil fields," said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "We see that as a real potential crisis."

Officials say there is no practical military advantage for Iraq to sabotage its oil fields. Rather, they say, it would amount to an act of aggression against the invading troops and a post-Hussein government.

Hussein's forces might have begun placing explosives on oil wellheads, the official said, citing U.S. intelligence information. There have also been recent Iraqi troop movements in the oil fields, he said.

Oil production in Iraq accounts for about 3 percent of the total global output. Iraq, which has double the number of oil wells in Kuwait, has two vast reserves. One, located in the south, has 1,000 wells and is about the size of New Jersey. Another field in the north, roughly the size of Rhode Island, has 500 wells.

Administration officials have long discussed the importance of Iraqi oil in helping create a new government and a stable country if Hussein is overthrown. Iraqi oil output, which accounts for about 95 percent of the country's foreign exchange, could provide the Iraqi people with $20 billion to $30 billion in annual revenue.

The official said he was not certain of the effect that destruction of Iraqi oil fields would have on world oil prices, though he noted that Iraq contributes a relatively small proportion to the global market.

The consequences for U.S. military operations, if Iraqi forces destroy the oil fields, would be minimal, the official predicted, though the economic and environmental damage could be catastrophic.

The destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields by Hussein's forces in 1991 cost $20 billion to repair, and its environmental impact was deemed 20 times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

Such sabotage in Iraq could produce double the cost and ecological degradation of the Kuwaiti incident.

In 1991, when allied forces assembling in Saudi Arabia threatened Hussein's troops in Kuwait, the Iraqis began to destroy the oil wells and then increased those efforts as they retreated under a withering U.S.-led attack. An enduring image of the gulf war was the plumes of black smoke from the oil fields that darkened the desert skies.

Those oil fields were sabotaged "before we were able to do anything," the official said. "Nobody could really gauge [Hussein's] intent to actually take that action. I think we have a better capability to do that now."

It took eight months to extinguish the Kuwaiti oil fires and about 18 months to repair the country's oil infrastructure.

The resulting oil fires led to a 10 percent increase in Kuwait death rates from respiratory and skin problems, according to the World Health Organization.

Also, the release of oil into the gulf by Hussein's forces killed at least 30,000 birds and contaminated 400 miles of coastline.

The U.S. Central Command is working on plans to seize the Iraqi oil fields "as rapidly as possible" in the event of war, "as opposed to having to go in and clean up after," the Pentagon official said.

But some analysts question whether Hussein would set his oil fields on fire.

"Obviously, it happened in Kuwait, so there's a risk of it," Raad Alkadiri, of Petroleum Finance Co. in Washington, told Tribune wire services. "But this has to be put in context. There's a great difference to Iraqis between torching Kuwaiti oil fields and torching their own, to put it bluntly."

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