- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) — The U.S. military is preparing to seize Iraq's oil fields if President Bush declares war because military planners believed Saddam Hussein would try to blow up some or all of the 1,500 oil wells, a senior military official told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Friday.

Should Iraq carry out the destruction of the oil wells, the damage could total some $40 billion to the country's infrastructure and untold environmental problems.

Both special operations forces and "very mobile" conventional forces have been training for the oil-field mission, and would be used both to seize and secure the fields as well as to begin putting out any fires that are set, he said. The emphasis is on prevention, however.

"We have crafted strategies to allow us to secure and protects the fields, rather than (have to) clean up afterward," the official said.

He said the burning of the fields would not have a military effect on U.S. soldiers, who carry gear that protects them against chemical and biological weapons and would also protect them from fumes and soot.

Once the fields are secured, they would be handed over to "a civilian agency" for administration.

The military official said the United States does not have hard evidence — such as satellite photos of sabotage operations — but has information from multiple sources that destroying the oil fields is Baghdad's intent.

"There are a number of indications from reliable intelligence sources that activities have been planned and may have already begun," the official said. "We don't know if the wells are pre-set" to blow up, he said.

The U.S. military is hoping the Iraqi military, which apart from the 150,000-man Republican Guard is believed to be loyal not to Saddam Hussein but to Iraq itself, will understand that burning the oil fields will only hurt the Iraqi people.

The official insisted the oil and proceeds from its sale would go to restoring Iraq's coffers post-Saddam Hussein. Various agencies of the U.S. government are studying how best to manage restoration of the oil fields, the official said.

Saddam order the destruction of the Kuwaiti oil fields in a literally "scorched earth" retreat as it became clear the United States was preparing an invasion. It took 18 months and approximately $20 billion to put out the fires and repair the fields. Saddam also ordered the dumping of 5 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, a spill that is still being cleaned up. The spill continues to affect Kuwait's water supply.

If the Iraqi fields are set fire to, it would take between 2 and 3 years to put out the flames, the official said.

Iraq has two primary fields. One, in the south, with "sweet crude" or relatively pure oil, is roughly the size of New Jersey and has 1,000 wellheads. The field in the north is the size of Rhode Island, has 500 wellheads and considerably less pure oil. While both would have dire environmental and health effects, the burning of the northern wells would release dangerous amounts of hydrogen sulfide — a substance similar to cyanide — into the air causing serious respiratory and vision problems.

The official said the impact on the burning of Iraqi oil would be greatest regionally, in terms of the environment, but will mostly hurt Iraq financially. Iraq currently produces 3 percent of the world's oil supply, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has a plan to restore the balance to supply if Iraq's fields become unusable, the official said.

If the fields are left intact, Iraq could produce as much as $30 billion in revenue for Baghdad a year.

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