YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

War with Iraq / Guarding the wells | The World

U.S. Seeking to Protect Iraqi Oil Fields

Military officials have devised strategies to prevent or minimize damage if Hussein orders his forces to set fire to the nation's wells.

March 20, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

MAMLAHAH, Kuwait — With war on Iraq underway, a primary concern is how to protect the country's vast oil fields from massive fires that could cause environmental devastation and all but halt the oil production that U.S. and allied planners are counting on to finance Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

The planners worry that Saddam Hussein, who ordered retreating Iraqi forces in 1991 to torch hundreds of Kuwaiti wells, could instruct his troops to do the same thing in his own country as a final, desperate act of defiance, and perhaps deterrence, aimed at incoming coalition forces.

The Iraqi leader has strenuously denied that he would order the destruction of his nation's resources. But some intelligence reports suggest that several Iraqi oil fields might already be rigged with explosives. Military commanders here say they have devised several strategies to prevent or minimize the damage.

Within days of the initial air bombardment, defense officials and military analysts say, thousands of light-infantry troops are expected to drop into northern Iraq to seize the region's oil fields, keep potentially warring ethnic factions apart and prepare for a possible southward march toward Baghdad.

Leapfrogging the enemy via helicopter and cargo planes in a strategy called "vertical envelopment," these foot soldiers would be charged with overwhelming the Iraqi forces and preventing them from setting fire to the fields.

Pentagon strategists are expected to combine elements of the 101st Airborne Division from Ft. Campbell, Ky., with the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, and a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Ft. Bragg, N.C. They probably would be complemented by Army Rangers and other special operations troops, including units from the 5th Special Forces Group, which shares its Kentucky base with the 101st Airborne.

With its brigades of helicopters and battalions of mobile troops, the 101st Airborne is capable of securing oil fields or any other strategic target.

"We can move infantry to any site, including oil fields, relatively easily," said Lt. Col. Timothy A. Jones, commander of the 9th Battalion, 159th Aviation Brigade (Assault) of the 101st Airborne Division. "That's not the focus of this unit, but it's certainly within the scope of our operations."

But just how extensive that assault can be remains open to question. Given that the coalition has been barred from bringing tanks and armored vehicles through Turkey, these forces will have to rely on U.S. warplanes to defend them against Iraqi tanks and artillery.

The Turkish parliament last month voted against allowing the United States to base up to 62,000 heavily armed troops in Turkey for an attack on Iraq, leaving the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles of the armored 4th Infantry Division in transport ships floating in the Mediterranean Sea.

"People often say that war plans don't survive contact with the enemy. This plan hasn't even made it that far," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy group.

Military officials in Kuwait say that quickly securing the oil fields is a top priority of the invasion strategy.

"Safeguarding the Iraqi people's oil -- and that's truly how we look at it -- is extremely important to us," said Maj. Chris Hughes of the Marines, a spokesman for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait.

"There is an incredible natural resource available to the Iraqi people to help them reestablish their society, and we will work to make sure it's available, and that a significant environmental disaster is not inflicted," he said.

In 1991 in Kuwait, it took nine months and $20 billion to contain the fire damage to the oil fields and restore production.

"The whole sky was black for weeks on end," recalled Fahad Dousair, an engineer at the Burgan oil field in Kuwait. "You could not see the sun."

If Hussein were to do the same thing in Iraq, the damage could exceed $50 billion, experts say.

"The wells in Iraq are much higher-yield. They're farther apart. The terrain is more difficult. There may not be enough water nearby," said Robert Ebel, energy program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "It would be one god-awful mess."

A serious disruption of Iraqi oil production probably would be more damaging to Iraq than to world economies, many experts say. The thinking is that other countries, notably Saudi Arabia, could quickly boost production to offset the loss of crude from Iraq.

But there are also concerns that terrorist attacks could target the vast Saudi Arabia oil fields and also those in Kuwait. Major damage to those production facilities could pose far greater problems for Western economies, which would almost certainly face oil shortages and drastic price spikes.

Los Angeles Times Articles