- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

NEAR THE KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER (AP) — Orange flames could be seen Thursday in the direction of the southern Iraqi oil center Basra, and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said three or four oil wells may have been torched. The Bush administration blamed the apparent blazes on Saddam Hussein.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the fires indicated another of Saddam's lies. Fleischer cited a recent television interview in which the dictator told a reporter that he would never set fire to Iraqi wells.

Witnesses in Kuwait about eight miles south of the border spotted flickering flames on the horizon after a series of explosions shook buildings in the area and sent farm workers running outside and shouting in alarm.

The Arab satellite television channel Al-Arabiya reported that fires had erupted in Iraq's valuable al-Rumeila field west of Basra and just north of the Kuwaiti border.

Rumsfeld said the military was seeking additional information.

Associated Press reporter Ross Simpson, embedded with a Marine unit in northern Kuwait, said he was told by a battalion commander that "three oil wells have been torched" in Iraq. He said he had no firsthand confirmation of the report.

Even before the war began, the Pentagon expressed fears that Saddam Hussein had planned to sabotage Iraq's oil fields by booby-trapping wells so one person could blow them up.

A loss of oil from Iraq - home to the world's second-largest reserves - could crimp supplies for importing countries, and deny U.S. and British governments an asset they hope will help pay for postwar efforts.

Indeed, oil prices jumped Thursday after reports emerged about the well fires. Earlier, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had sought to calm oil markets by pledging to maximize output to make up for any disruption in crude exports from Iraq.

Iraq's Rumeila South oil field near the Kuwaiti border ranks as one of the country's largest, with more than 5 billion barrels in reserves. It is near a similar-sized field nearby known as Rumeila North, and both are on and near strategic pipelines that pump oil out of the country.

"Needless to say, it is a crime for that regime to be destroying the riches of the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld told a news conference in Washington.

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