- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

AHMADI, Kuwait -
Khalil al-Kharji still marvels at how easy it was for the Iraqi army to blow up Kuwait's oil wells. An engineer for the state-owned oil company, Mr. al-Kharji watched in disbelief in 1990 as soldiers dangled an explosive charge down the center of an oil well at the massive Burgan oil field, where it would do the maximum damage.
"And then they tied four or five of the wells together, with wires, so they could blow them all up with only one charge," he said yesterday from his console at a rebuilt oil facility in southeast Kuwait. "You would not believe how easy it is to do."
Before dawn in August 1990, Mr. al-Kharji raced to his office in the control center and shut down all the oil-collection centers under his command. Shortly afterward, he was banished from the office as Iraqi engineers commandeered the compound.
"They just looked at things, they didn't touch," he said. "They were from the Rumailah oil field [in Iraq] and didn't have our computers. They didn't know how to work things."
Nevertheless, he said, as the Iraqi soldiers began their retreat on Feb. 23, 1991, they ignited the charges exploding hundreds of Kuwait's oil wells, gathering centers, pipes and other infrastructure.
It took 16 private companies from around the world eight months to put out the fires that turned the sky black, poisoned the land and harbor, and destroyed wildlife.
Despite reports that al Qaeda is recruiting volunteers to destroy Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian oil installations in the event of a war on Iraq, the officials with the Kuwait Oil Co. (KOC) say they are not worried. At least, not for their own industry.
"We are an oil company, under the umbrella of the army," said Ayedh al-Hajeri, the operations manager and deputy chairman of the emergency preparedness committee for the oil fields in Kuwait's southwestern sector. "We have no concerns."
However, he said, reports that President Saddam Hussein has ordered his forces to prepare the destruction of oil wells in northern Iraq, and possibly the south, are worrisome for its neighbors.
"We have seen these reports," Mr. al-Hajeri said. "It seems people have seen the sabotage inside Iraq itself."
The prospect of runaway oil fires in Iraq a desert with little available water or firefighting mechanisms is frightening to experts. When Iraqi troops torched Kuwait's wells and processing facilities in 1991, the environmental damage was horrific.
The burned-out Burgan oil field in Kuwait has been preserved by KOC as a sort of monument to the occupation by Iraq, and its drooping steel girders and melted bricks are a popular stop for visiting journalists, politicians and military officials.
"We saved this so people could see it, it's a site of international robbery," said KOC public relations officer Mutlaq al-Qahtani, who has shepherded such American luminaries as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Tommy Franks and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz over the charcoal crust of oil that blankets the windswept sand.
In one corner of the field, an enormous water tank is crumpled like vinyl, its half-inch-thick steel walls melted into soft folds. A metal staircase climbs up the side at a dizzying angle.
Before 1990, this was a gathering facility to collect crude oil from 40 to 50 wells and separate out the water and salts and gas. Roughly 80,000 barrels of oil a day were piped forward for refining.
Kuwaiti oil officials are vague about security measures but say they plan to keep producing oil until the war poses a threat to workers or infrastructure.
"We will continue under normal conditions until we feel it is unsafe," Mr. al-Hajeri said. "It depends on what happens."
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the cartel of 11 major oil-producing nations, has said it will not raise output quotas to offset supply fears and stabilize the jittery oil market.
OPEC officials in Vienna, Austria, this week told Agence France-Presse that the expected war against Iraq would not disrupt oil supplies.
"If there will be a shortage on the market, then we will come to discuss how to balance and for how long, and see what is the quantity of the shortage," said OPEC President Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah. "So far … we don't feel there is a shortage in the market."
In the event of a severe supply disruption, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said, Washington would dip into its strategic oil reserves.

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