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WAR WITH IRAQ / ENERGY

Oil Fires, but Not Like 1991

Crews in southern Iraq say it could have been worse. 'You can see the sun,' says one worker.

March 30, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

RUMAILA OIL FIELD, Iraq — Flames shot five stories above the desert floor, a shimmering orange, sending off plumes of smoke. A similar fire burned half a mile away. And another in the distance.

But the crews who had come to southern Iraq to douse these sabotaged oil wells say it could have been far worse.

Larry Flak, an American oilman who hates to see good crude go to waste, pointed to blue skies beyond the haze. "You can see the sun," he said.

Before the war, military and industry experts worried that retreating Iraqi soldiers would blacken the horizon by torching hundreds of wells in the Rumaila field of southern Iraq, as they did to Kuwaiti oil fields during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Instead, only nine wells and pipelines in the vast oil and gas reserve were set ablaze before U.S. and British troops arrived.

It took several days to secure the fields, 35 miles from Basra, the nation's second-largest city. The British dug machine-gun bunkers in the sand and sent foot patrols along the perimeter.

Explosives experts subsequently cleared away mines, making it safe for Kuwaiti firefighters and a private American company to move in.

The firefighting crews have responded by snuffing six of the blazes, including one that was extinguished Saturday.

Now the only people allowed through the field are Bedouins driving their camels.

Even they presented a problem at first, gathering discarded Iraqi rifles with the intention of selling them.

"We warned them," Maj. Mike Murdoch of the Royal Irish Regiment said. "We explained to the Bedouins that being armed is not such a good thing."

Their camels now move slowly past the oil wells, the herd thinning to a single line steering wide of the roar and heat.

An American firefighting crew, its members dressed in red coveralls and matching helmets, spent Saturday showering flames with a water gun and using a crane to push a "stinger" -- a tapered steel tube -- into a burning well.

Mud was forced down the tube, pushing the oil back into the ground, extinguishing the flame and giving workers time to make repairs.

The job doesn't always go smoothly. Adjacent ground can become hot enough to reignite a fire. Static electricity from wind-blown sand also can spark a flame. If the damage runs deep, a flammable oil mist will rise to the surface.

Not far from where Flak's crew worked, a Kuwaiti team poured 184,000 gallons of water on another well -- to no avail.

"Whoever blew up this one did a good job," said Aisa Bou Yabes, head of the Kuwaiti crew. "It caught fire again and again and again."

Restoring Rumaila and adjacent oil fields is seen as key to the country's economic future, no matter the war's outcome.

Iraq has proven reserves of 112 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia, and an estimated 60% of the nation's residents rely on the United Nations' "oil for food" program to provide food and medicine. The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Friday to free billions of dollars in oil revenue for the program, taking authority from Iraq to order supplies and giving it to Secretary-General Kofi Annan for 45 days and perhaps longer.

Flak isn't sure the U.S. and British military deserve all the credit for the Rumaila oil field's relatively healthy state. Having worked beside Iraqis here during the early 1980s, he sees another reason.

"I really think that the oil workers of Iraq did not want to blow up their own wells," he said. "Their bosses might have wanted that, but they didn't. No good oilman wants to see his wells damaged.

"And there are some good oil people in Iraq."

With continued luck, experts predict, Rumaila could be producing a significant amount of oil within months. But the firefighting crews and the military know that more trouble may await them in fields to the north, especially in Kirkuk.

For Yabes, the prospect revives unhappy memories of more than a decade ago when retreating Iraqis set fire to 732 wells in his nation's fields.

"A major disaster," he recalled. "Now [Saddam Hussein] is doing it to his own country."

The Kuwaiti firefighter cut a striking figure on the desert, his beard long and white, an extravagant silver hard hat atop his head. A flap of skin hung from a fresh gash across the bridge of his nose.

Yabes saw no irony in laboring to restore oil production in enemy territory.

"Fighting the fire is like a doctor," he said. "When they bring someone sick, you don't look at nationality. You try to cure the guy."

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