Ruin in Kuwait recalls Hussein's tactics

Nation prepares to halt oil production if Iraq fires missiles over border

March 06, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BURGAN OILFIELD, Kuwait - At Kuwaiti Oil Co.'s Gathering Center 14, an oil storage tank leans drunkenly to one side like a collapsed top hat. Once-tidy pipelines that channeled Kuwaiti crude oil from dozens of wells now spiral and twist to all points of the compass. The earth is charred and brittle underfoot; an acrid scent still hangs in the air.

The wreckage is the handiwork of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army, which blew up Kuwaiti oil installations like this one and torched more than 700 oil wells before fleeing across the border in the final days of the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

A dozen years later, Kuwaitis still recall vividly those oil fires, when the sun disappeared behind a sky of eye-stinging black smoke, gushing oil soaked the land and the foundation of their economy lay in ruins.

Today, some worry, their oilfields could once more ignite if the United States goes to war with Iraq. While Hussein would be unlikely to get his army into Kuwait, he could launch missiles across the southern border. He could dispatch saboteurs to attack the oil wells.

And if he failed to attack Kuwait, Hussein could torch his own oilfields to slow advancing U.S. troops, badly polluting Kuwait.

"When you are a scared cat in the corner, you will do anything," warns Khalud Muhammed, an information officer for the state-owned Kuwaiti Oil Co.

Hoping to protect its oil, Kuwait has been preparing to stop production on its northern oilfields near the Iraq border. Some equipment and supplies have been moved out of the fields for safekeeping.

And military analysts predict that one of the first goals of invading U.S. and British forces would be to seize and secure Iraq's oilfields to prevent Hussein from destroying them.

Here at Burgan field, about 30 minutes south of Kuwait City, workers are training to protect themselves from chemical and biological attack.

"When war starts - in sha 'Allah - we will be ready," promises Elad Sultan, an engineer at Burgan Oilfield who offered foreign journalists a tour of the oil installations yesterday.

Chances for an attack this far south in Kuwait are remote, oil officials say. It is out of range of artillery fire and Iraq's missiles. Still, cutting production to protect the oil in case of war could deal a substantial blow to the industry.

Oil has come to define Kuwait's economy since the end of World War II when exports first took off. Before then Kuwaiti's economy was dominated by fishing, trade and pearl diving.

Today the country produces about 1.9 million barrels of oil per day, making it one of the world's largest energy suppliers. Its reserves - 94 billion barrels - make up 10 percent of the world's total crude oil reserves.

Oil revenues account for 75 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of the country's total export earnings.

The oil wealth greatly benefits Kuwait's 800,000 citizens, who enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of much of the world. The government has invested in development and social welfare programs, offering Kuwaitis retirement income, marriage bonuses, housing loans, nearly guaranteed employment, free medical care and free education from nursery school to graduate school. Gas is cheap, too.

Oil has come to define U.S. interests in the gulf region. Some critics of President Bush say his motivation for going to war against Iraq is to tap into Iraq's vast oil resources. Similar claims were made during the first gulf war, when protesters argued that blood was being spilled to protect U.S. energy interests.

That war damaged about 80 percent of Kuwait's oil wells and stopped oil exports for five months.

An international team of firefighters labored for eight months to extinguish the flames. Kuwaiti Amir Sheik Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah capped the last burning oil well at Burgan oil field on Nov. 6, 1999 - an event the Kuwaiti Oil Co. continues to celebrate each year.

The oil fires cost the country an estimated $75 billion. Rebuilding the country after the war drained almost 70 percent of Kuwait's savings.

"The whole sky was getting black. You couldn't ever see the sun," recalls Fahad Al Dousair, an engineer at Burgan oilfield who was 15 at the time of the war.

Muhammed called it revenge.

"[Hussein] said, `OK, you guys get your country, but you don't get it the way it was,'" Muhammed said during the tour of Gathering Center 14.

The Kuwaitis brought four busloads of journalists here yesterday to describe their rapid recovery after the war and show off Burgan, which they said is the second-largest oilfield in the world. (The largest is in Saudi Arabia.)

An engineer hammed it up, filling up clear containers of molasses-thick crude oil again and again for the cameras. Kuwaiti Oil Co. officials stopped at the shore of a brownish pond with clumps of oil floating in it, pointing out remnants of an "oil lake."

The lakes were formed when oil gushing from the wells spread out across the Kuwaiti plains and mixed with seawater that had been used to douse the flames. The lakes covered nearly 100 square miles of the country, killing thousands of birds and other wildlife before workers started cleaning it up.

"There used to be flowers, animals and birds," recalled Abdul Khaleq Al-Ali, a spokesman for the Kuwaiti Oil Co. "Now you can see it is completely deserted."

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