- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) — The Pentagon is searching for private contractors to fight oil fires in Iraq and help restore the oil fields to working order in the event of a war with Iraq.

Pentagon planners are concerned Iraq military forces will set fire to the two vast oil fields in the north and south both to slow down U.S. military forces in the event of a war and as a sheer act of terrorism, military officials said in January. Retreating Iraqi forces set fire to the oil fields in Kuwait in 1991.

Officials said Wednesday they have intelligence suggesting such acts of sabotage are already being prepared as a war becomes ever more likely.

The U.S. military's war plans include seizing Iraq's oil fields as soon as the war begins. 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, according to a U.S. Central Command official.

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. Iraq has roughly 1,500 individual oil wells.

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 Iraqi soldiers light the oil fields, 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.

Contractors who are interested in working with the Pentagon on the Iraqi oil fields should call 866-461-5171. A recorded message provides instructions on the information necessary for firms to be added to the bidders list.

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