- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

HOUSTON America is planning for the prospect that Saddam Hussein will use his vast oil reserves as a doomsday weapon, blowing up wells or diverting their flows into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Such a move could trigger one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Over the past month, oil executives said, the Pentagon has asked every one of the world's major oil well firefighting companies for advice and contingency plans.

In the close-knit world of well control, dominated by barrel-chested Texans in the mold of Paul N. "Red" Adair, the talk is of a disaster that would dwarf the fires set by Saddam's armies as they retreated from Kuwait in 1991.

The world had four months to prepare for the 1991 disaster, as intelligence reported Iraqis were wiring Kuwait's wells with explosives.

Now, Saddam appears to be contemplating the same tactics but on his own territory.

One senior American military official said: "There are indications through reliable intelligence sources that those activities have been planned and that, in some cases, they may have begun."

[Sean Rayment of the London Telegraph reports that British troops will be responsible for securing and protecting Iraq's 1,500 oilfields in the event of war.

[The 26,000 soldiers from the 7th Armored and 16 Air Assault brigades will begin training for the operation when they arrive in Kuwait in mid-February. The mission is the first real indication by the Pentagon that British forces will play a vital part in the attempt to remove Saddam from power.

[The plan to rescue the wells is understood to involve using the Special Air Services (SAS) and troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade, who can deploy either from helicopters or by parachuting from aircraft, in a "seize and protect" operation, with tanks from the 7th Armored Brigade providing a defensive ring.

[The SAS will be the spearhead force, securing and neutralizing the well heads in a series of covert raids, with the help of paratroopers, who will provide them with protection. Troops will form a defensive barrier to repel any Iraqi counterattack until the arrival of tanks and armored infantry, who will link up with them within 48 hours.]

It took nine months to put out the 690 Kuwaiti oil wells left ablaze in an effort involving almost every piece of specialist equipment in North America.

Firefighters were greatly helped by Kuwait's small size, flat terrain and easy availability of water after an oil pipeline was reversed to carry water from the Persian Gulf.

By contrast, many Iraqi oil wells are far from the sea, scattered in remote mountain areas. Many have stronger flow rates than Kuwaiti wells, making for larger fires.

Worldwide, there are fewer than 100 well-head firemen the elite who can work in the 150-foot-wide "Red Zone" around a burning well with Kuwaiti experience. Some have retired and many are now in their 50s.

Jeff Miller, marketing director of Cudd Pressure Control, the world's largest well-fire company, said the government contacted his firm and their two largest rivals, Wild Well Control, and Boots & Coots, a month ago.

"They asked how many people and how much equipment do you have?" he said. "Our rapid-response team can be wheeled into a cargo plane."

Safety Boss, a Canadian well-control firm, was recently contacted by American military emergency ordnance and demolition experts, asking detailed questions about how Iraqi troops blew up wells in Kuwait.

Mike Miller, the chief executive of Safety Boss, said: "We sent them a photograph of a Kuwaiti well wired to explode that failed to detonate. They used plastic explosives, wrapped with sandbags. We've been trading e-mails on how the Iraqis could do it worse than in Kuwait."

Les Skinner, a senior well-control engineer at Cudd, has no doubt that Saddam knows how.

"One of the things we noticed in Kuwait was that every well was blown out in the worst possible way to maximise the damage.

"Each one was different, depending on the well type. It had to have been done by petroleum engineers, not just soldiers."

This time, there may be a time lag before firemen can mobilize. "There's going to be security issues," said Mr. Skinner. Concerns include mine fields, unexploded ordnance, lingering Iraqi resistance and chemical and biological weapons.

"Luckily, biological agents don't survive long near heat," said Mr Skinner. "But we need an assurance that the area is secure. If we're under a plume of oil, drenched in it, we have to be sure someone is not able to fire a flare into the plume and cook a bunch of firefighters."

Each day that firemen have to wait will cost the environment dear. According to Mike Miller, at Safety Boss: "You can only compare the Kuwait fires with the largest volcanic eruptions centuries back."

At Cudd's Houston offices, there was agreement. "It was like midnight in Kuwait," said Mike Audirsch, Cudd's international managing director.

"There was a curtain of soot and hydrocarbons. A lot of the oil didn't burn but rained back down as a fine mist."

Mr. Skinner recalled: "Smoke from Kuwait ended up over India and Pakistan. With Iraq's much larger oil fields, the smoke could end over Burma and Russia.

"In Kuwait after five or six months of fires, they'd lost 3 percent of their total reserves. Three percent of Iraq's reserves is a beyond-comprehension number."

These gruff men talk of fighting fires without emotion, even calling it "easy." But there is one scenario that terrifies them. "If Saddam doesn't blow the wells but just lets them flow into the rivers or marshes, that's a nightmare," said Mr Audirsch.

Saddam has done it before. In Kuwait, he had 10 million gallons of crude poured into the Persian Gulf to prevent marine landings, planning to set it alight as a curtain of fire.

Mr. Skinner looked grim. "The Tigris and Euphrates hold a large part of the fresh water for the Middle East.

"If he drains oil into them, we can't use that water for firefighting. If there are ground fires, we may not be able to get to the wells." Then there are long-term effects.

"You would lose groundwater, farmland, marshes, livestock and wildlife. If the oil reached the Persian Gulf …" He paused. "Nothing has ever happened like that before."

The Texans hope Iraqi troops would disobey orders to let the wells flow. "You'd see mass unemployment, starvation and illness.

"It reminds me very much of the Book of Revelation," said Mr. Skinner.

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