U.S. MILITARY sources have warned that the Iraqi government may be planning to blow up its own oil fields in the event of war.
These reports may be in part intended to explain why U.S. forces are likely to move very early to control Iraq's oilfields - at a time when many in the Middle East and around the world are suspicious that the war is mostly about oil. But there are serious reasons to be concerned that Iraqi oil fields could be put out of commission for an extended period, with huge consequences for the United States and the international economy.
Certainly Iraq blew up oil installations in Kuwait as it withdrew from that country during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Fortunately for the international economy, the outcome was that the oil fields remained out of commission for only months, not years.
But evidence from history suggests that if denying oil to the West becomes Iraq's priority, it can be far more successful than it was in Kuwait.
In fact, as early as 1949, the Truman administration investigated the most effective methods for preventing an enemy from using Middle East oil fields. Fearful of a possible Soviet invasion of the Arabian Peninsula, President Harry S. Truman put in place a plan to blow up the Saudi oil installations so as to prevent the Soviets from making use of the oil and thus becoming even more powerful.
In 1950, the CIA conducted a feasibility study that considered the use of radiological weapons as a way of making it impossible for the Soviets to benefit from the oil.
The CIA report ruled out the use of radiological weapons as a method for two reasons.
First, it was found that "denial of the wells by radiological means can be accomplished to prevent an enemy from utilizing the oil fields but it could not prevent him from forcing `expendable Arabs' to enter contaminated areas to open well heads and deplete the reservoirs. Therefore, it is not considered that radiological means are practicable as a conservation measure." In other words, while such a method would have prevented the Soviets from using the oil, it would have also prevented the United States from using it upon reoccupation.
Second, the CIA report found that the use of explosives and conventional plugging methods of the oil heads could be effective enough in denying the Soviets the ability to access the oil. As a result, the Truman administration put in place an oil-denial policy using conventional explosives that were stored in the region. This policy was later reinforced by the Eisenhower administration.
Unlike in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's government has had much more time to contemplate more effective methods. It would also be less constrained, knowing that a war would bring the end of his reign. Regardless of the evidence that U.S. intelligence may have about actual Iraqi plans, it would be surprising if Iraqi rulers have not prepared such a contingency.
Consider the logic: If oil fields were put out of commission for an extended period, the consequences for the global economy would be significant and would have huge ripple effects on sectors of the economy such as the troubled airline industry.
Other major oil producers would suddenly emerge with far greater influence than they command today. And the amount of investment - and time - needed to restore Iraq's destroyed economy, bring stability to the country and restore the oil fields would be great.
Iraq may calculate that America's staying power in that environment may be significantly undermined. It would be very puzzling if such a calculation did not result in an actual oil denial plan by a regime that must know that it will go down in the event of war - especially when you add the mere propensity for revenge and foiling America's plans. After all, most in the region believe that the United States is simply after the oil.
It is certainly possible, even probable, that the United States could move fast enough to prevent the implementation of such a plan or that Iraqi subordinates would refuse to implement it. But it is improbable that the Iraqis do not know how to do it or that their leaders have not seriously contemplated an oil-denial plan as a contingency of last resort.
This means that the possibility of such a plan is not negligible and that no prudent policy can ignore its severe consequences.
Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park and senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. His newest book is The Stakes: America and the Middle East (Westview, 2002).