- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) — The White House Thursday ordered the seizure of Iraqi government assets in the United States and monitored a small number of oil well fires that could add to the cost of reconstructing Iraq after a war.

President George W. Bush signed an order confiscating accounts held in U.S. banks under the names of the "Government of Iraq, Central Bank of Iraq, Raidain Bank, Rasheed Bank or the State Organization for Marketing Oil."

"I intend that such vested property should be used to assist the Iraqi people and to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq, and determine that such use would be in the interest of and for the benefit of the United States," Bush said.

Earlier, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said a small number of oil well fires in southern Iraq had been reported but that U.S. officials had no details on the extent of the damage.

"We have received reports from our forces that a small number of oil wells in Southern Iraq are on fire. We have no additional details or no information on the extent of the damage," Fleischer told reporters.

The United States and its coalition partners had feared Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime might attempt to sabotage the oil wells, a resource they said would be used to help pay for the reconstruction of the country once the war is over.

"Saddam Hussein is trying to destroy the wealth of his own people," Fleischer said. He pointed to an interview Saddam gave with CBS News where he said the regime would not burn its own oil wells.

Fleischer said it was "a reminder of what this war is about, the very fact that Saddam Hussein will lie. And the issue is his lies about his possession of weapons of mass destruction."

In 1991, Saddam ordered his troops to set fire to oil wells as they left Kuwait, an action that took special teams some nine months to extinguish, causing billions of dollars in damage.

The showdown with Iraq was the culmination of 12 years of U.N. resolutions, capped in recent months by a newly found determination on the part of the United States to force Saddam to reveal and destroy the chemical and biological weapons it claims he has.

Some opponents of the war had worried that a military conflict with oil-rich Iraq would compromise crude oil supplies on the global market, resulting in skyrocketing gas prices.

But in Vienna Thursday, Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, president of the OPEC Conference, pledged the organization's resolve to "make up for any supply shortfall resulting from developing events."

The White House also pointed to a statement from the International Energy Agency, the group that monitors global oil supplies, which said that major oil producers were confident they could keep the market adequately supplied.

"We are determined to promote stability in world oil markets and remain ready to reinforce producers' efforts should the need arise," said Claude Mandil, IEA executive director in a written statement.

The pledges on oil were a vote of confidence for the Bush administration as it thanked members of the coalition for their help in the war effort. The White House worked hard Thursday to dispel assertions that the war had little support from the international community.

Bush was heartened by the growing number of countries providing varying levels of support as bombs continued to fall in Baghdad.

"Over 40 nations now support our efforts. We are grateful for their determination, we appreciate their vision, and we welcome their support," Bush said Thursday after an afternoon meeting with his Cabinet.

The White House said contributions from nations include direct military participation; logistical, intelligence and political support; specialized chemical and biological response teams; overflight rights; and humanitarian and other aid.

Some of the countries that have signed on include Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

The Turkish parliament a short time earlier had voted to grant overflight rights to the United States and the coalition. Last week it had voted against allowing some 60,000 U.S. troops to be stationed along the Turkish-Iraqi border, derailing some military plans.

Still, Russia and South Africa voiced their disappointment that the war had started. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday condemned the attack on Iraq and demanded a "quick end of military operations." Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, had opposed the war and threatened a veto of the U.S.-British resolution giving authorization for use of force.

The European Union remained split over the Iraqi crisis Thursday, with France, Germany and Greece criticizing the start of hostilities against Baghdad and Britain, Italy and Spain backing the U.S.-led strikes. South African President Thabo Mbeki called the war "a blow to multilateralism."

The tone inside the White House a day after the war got under way was a mix of determination and optimism. Bush began his day about 6 a.m., less than eight hours after giving a nationally televised address announcing the start of hostilities. For a fourth consecutive day, Bush has no public schedule except for a visit and dinner with the president of Cameroon.

The White House said it hasn't determined whether an appearance by Saddam Hussein on state-run television was genuine.

"We have reached no conclusions about the tape, who it is or if it is Saddam Hussein or when it may have been taped," Fleischer told reporters.

After his afternoon Cabinet meeting, the president would not respond when asked whether he thought Saddam was dead or alive.

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