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Iraq May Be Poised to Ignite Oil Fields

Mideast War Could Send Environment Up In Smoke
Kuwaiti oil well set on fire by Iraq, 1991
Kuwaiti oil well set on fire by Iraq, 1991
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- Iraq has moved explosives to its oilfields at Kirkuk with the intention of firing the oil facilities as a deterrent to U.S. military action, U.S. officials told Reuters March 10, without revealing the sources of their intelligence. This report comes on the heels of an unconfirmed story from the Islamic Republic News Agency agency on Thursday which reported that Iraq dropped bombs which resulted in the explosion of an oil refinery near Kirkuk.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer today said he could not confirm those reports. "I'm not in a position to have evaluated them," he told a press briefing.

Iraq's Oil Undersecretary Hussein Suleiman Al-Hadithi denied the country has placed explosives in the oilfields in northern Iraq.

Still, these reports are among a "variety of sources" that have convinced the U.S. Defense Department that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein has "both the capability and the intent to damage or destroy Iraq's oil fields," the department said in a statement Thursday.

That assessment, together with the fact that Hussein's regime set fire to more than 700 of Kuwait's oil wells in 1991, has prompted the United States to plan for the possibility of oil well fires in Iraq in the event of military action to disarm the regime.

"Reliable reports indicate that these activities have been planned, and in some cases, may already have begun," the Department of Defense (DoD) said Thursday. "Recent information revealed that Iraq has received 24 railroad boxcars full of pentolite explosives. While destruction of the fields would not be a militarily significant act, it will produce economic and environmental impacts with lasting effects on the people of Iraq, as well as Iraq's neighbors."

With over 10 billion barrels of remaining proven oil reserves, Kirkuk is the center of Iraq's oil industry and is connected by pipelines to ports on the Mediterranean Sea. After some 70 years of operation, Kirkuk still produces up to one million barrels a day, almost half of all Iraqi oil exports.

Kirkuk is located in northern Iraq, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the capital of Baghdad near the foot of the Zagros Mountains and just south of the no-fly zone patrolled by U.S. and British aircraft.

U.S. plans are first to prevent the destruction of Iraq's oil fields and second, if unable to prevent the destruction, to control and mitigate the damage quickly, said the Defense Department.

"The department has crafted strategies that will allow U.S. forces to secure and protect the oil fields as rapidly as possible in order to preserve them prior to destruction. U.S. military forces would be responsible for securing and protecting the oil sites, and under appropriate contractual arrangements, private sector companies would extinguish any fires and assess damage to oil facilities." the Defense Department said.

Brown & Root Services, a division of Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., Houston, developed the oil facilities control plan for the U.S. government, a plan which includes assessing damages.

Halliburton Company, led by Dick Cheney before he assumed his current position of vice president, is the parent of construction giant Kellogg Brown & Root Inc.

"Environmentally, the U.S. estimates that the regime's likely actions have the potential to double the disastrous effects experienced in Kuwait in 1991," said the DoD, which says the destruction of those oil wells had "an impact 20 times larger than that of the Exxon Valdez disaster" of 1989.

In 1991, Iraq released about five million barrels of oil into the Arabian Gulf, the DoD says. "Even today, there are still environmental clean-up actions being taken."

The many water desalination plants around the Gulf were affected by the Iraqi release of oil. The long term effects on the water tables in Gulf countries are still being analyzed, the DoD said, but it has been determined that about 30 percent of Kuwait's water is unusable as a result of the 1991 oil contamination.

The Defense Department estimates that "up to 15 desalination plants would be affected were Iraq to undertake such actions today, critically affecting many of Iraq's neighbors."

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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