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Pentagon has reports Iraqi oil wells ablaze

NOAA image
This NOAA satellite image taken March 20 shows an undetermined number of oil well fires in Iraq, the plumes of which are visible, indicated by the arrow.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that the Pentagon has received reports that Iraqi forces have set "as many as three or four" oil wells ablaze in southern Iraq, near the Kuwaiti border.

"We are attempting to get additional information on that," he said at a Pentagon briefing.

Pentagon officials told CNN the fires are at well heads and not in oil-filled trenches.

Plumes are visible in satellite images taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which the agency describes as "consistent with NOAA's experience in detecting oil fires in the past from satellites in space."

"In addition, these plumes have been co-located as being consistent with where oil wells are known to exist," NOAA said in a press release.

The images were produced from data taken Thursday at 5:05 a.m. EST by the NOAA-16 satellite, a polar-orbiting satellite that floats about 520 miles above Earth in roughly a north-south orbit, NOAA said.

Saddam has set oil fires before

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has ordered oil wells to be set ablaze in the past. After his forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and coalition forces were massing together to force them out, Saddam said if he had to be evicted from Kuwait by force, then Kuwait would be burned.

As promised, Iraqi troops set fire to more than 700 oil wells in several Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991 as they were retreating. Officials from the Kuwait Oil Company reported that all of Kuwait's oil fields had been damaged or destroyed by the Iraqis.

The United States helped Kuwait in an international nine-month effort to extinguish the blazes.

Before the fires, Iraq was responsible for intentionally releasing some 11 million barrels of oil into the Arabian Gulf from January to May 1991, oiling more than 800 miles of Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian coastline. The amount of oil released was categorized as 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and twice as large as the previous world record oil spill. The cost of cleanup was estimated at more than $700 million.

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