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12 years later, Kuwaiti oil field still bears scars

AL BURGAN OILFIELD, Kuwait—At the oil collection point here known as "Gathering Center 14," evidence of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's notorious scorched-earth tactics is on display.

Once-huge metal oil storage tanks lie in their original locations, flattened like pancakes. Melted and twisted pipes are strewn across charred, lava-like soil. Hardly anything sprouts in the cracks of buckled concrete. Down the road, a lake previously vibrant with birds has become a stagnant pool of desolation.

Twelve years after Kuwait was liberated, GC 14 still bears scars from the devastation inflicted by the invading Iraqi army that wired it with explosives before retreating. That army set fire to about 700 of Kuwait's wells, including many in this southern oil field, considered the world's second largest after Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field.

"I saw the whole thing blow like an orange ball," recalled Abdul Khaleq Mustafa, a spokesman for the state-owned Kuwait Oil Co. who led foreign reporters around GC 14 during a tour of the site last week. "The idea was to inflict the maximum damage on the economy."

"It was horrible," said Fahad A. Rahman al Qatan, an oil company worker who was present when the munitions were detonated. "You cannot describe the situation."

In public statements, Saddam has denied suggestions that he'll order the destruction of his country's oilfields in a departing fit of vengeance if it is attacked. If he does, GC 14 offers a stark glimpse of how Iraq's oil production sites might be left.

So many wells were set on fire that Kuwait was dark in daytime. Thick, acrid smoke reached high into the atmosphere, forming a dark plume on satellite photographs and raining petroleum droplets across the region. It took international firefighting teams seven months to get them completely under control.

Since then, Kuwait Oil Co. has rebuilt or replaced most of the affected wells and gathering centers, though a few were so badly damaged that they were beyond repair. The company has not gotten around to clearing all of them, including GC 14.

The oil company believes the risk that its fields will suffer damage in any new war is low, not least of all because more than 100,000 U.S. and British troops are in the country along with an 8,000-man protection force from neighboring Gulf states.

"You won't see Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi army here," said Mustafa. "The only way (for damage to occur) is from a missile."

Still, the oil company is taking measures against sabotage, terrorism or an Iraqi air strike, said Emad Mahmoud Sultan, the oil company's team leader for protection operations in eastern Kuwait. The company has an emergency plan, its 4,800 employees have been practicing drills and security patrols have increased. Gas masks could be seen hanging on the wall in a control room at another functioning collection point in the Burgan field.

Some of the wells in Kuwait's northern oil fields have already been closed as a safety precaution, and all in the north would be shut down in the event of war, leaving this field 25 miles south of Kuwait City as the sole source of Kuwait's oil.

Such a shutdown would reduce Kuwait's oil production by about a third and, combined with a halt in Iraqi production, reduce the world's oil supply. The shortfall would have to be made up by stepped-up production by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries or by releases of the strategic reserves of the United States and other countries.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.