- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) — Updated reports Friday from Iraq suggested most the country's southern oil wells had been secured by coalition ground forces.

A Defense Department spokeswoman told United Press International that although she could not confirm the reports, at present there were no indications additional oil wells had been set on fire.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters 10 Iraqi wells were burning, all in the southern oil-producing region.

In an earlier report, British Foreign Secretary Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp. the Iraqis had set some 30 oil wells ablaze, although, he said, the situation thus far was not as bad as coalition forces had envisioned.

"Although we feared that there might be a systematic effort by Iraqi authorities to destroy all of those wells, that so far at any rate has not been the case," he said.

Iraq has approximately 1,500 oil wells.

Rumsfeld told reporters U.S. and British forces were closing in on all the oil fields in southern Iraq and would attempt to secure the area. He said the country's northern fields were essentially secure already, but would not provide details.

Several private firms specializing in oil firefighting are waiting for contract assignments by the Pentagon to fight the fires — as soon as military experts can sweep both the burning wells and oil fields for explosives and possible booby traps.

Such prospects seem slim, said Ed Badolato, executive vice president with the Shaw Group, of Baton Rouge, La. Badolato, a chemical and biological weapons disposal expert, said when the Iraqi army blew up 700 wells at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, they did not attempt to leave any booby traps on the wells for workers who fought the fires.

The new well fires were set by methods that are "low-tech and well-understood by any military or petroleum engineer," Badolato told UPI.

Assuming no booby traps and if the number of wells burning stands at 10, the challenge would be fairly standard for the firefighters. On any given day, three to four wells are burning somewhere in the world, said Les Skinner, director of well control engineering for Cudd Well Control in Houston.

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