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U.S. official: Troops seize key oil fields

Fire rages Friday at an oil field in southern Iraq.
Fire rages Friday at an oil field in southern Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. and British troops have seized, in lightning raids, two strategically important airfields in western Iraq and strategic oil fields in southern Iraq, according to a senior U.S. military official.

The two western Iraq airfields, known as H-2 and H-3, are considered important to the continued military operation inside Iraq.

The field known as H-3 is also considered by U.S. intelligence to be a potential site of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, according to an informed official.

The captured oil fields are located west of Basra.

Retreating Iraqi soldiers have torched seven oil wells in southern Iraq, according to British Chief of Staff Adm. Michael Boyce on Friday.

Earlier, UK Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said up to 30 oil wells had been set afire.

In Ar Rumaylah, U.S. Marines battled four oil well fires during the night, bringing two of them under control by dawn, said Philip Ray Smith, a pool reporter embedded with Britain's 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.

Plumes of charcoal gray smoke with flames at the base could be seen easily from a distance, he said.

British Royal Air Force spokesman Jon Fynes told CNN the burning wells were "the real shame."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is "setting fire to his oil wells and it has no tactical advantage," he said. "The modern weapons that we have don't have to see the targets."

"Once again, he's only hurting his own people, not us," Fynes said.

Groups of specially trained firefighters, or "oil capping teams," were traveling with the Marines, and were trying to contain a third oil well fire Friday morning, leaving only one of the wells burning out of control.

He said a primary objection of the ground troops was to secure the oil wells before Iraqi troops could sabotage them.

But even before the British artillery unit left Kuwait, they were told the four oil and gas separation plants had been set on fire. Smith said the regiment's mission now was to "try and tackle those blazes the best they can."

These particular refineries are said to be massive and generated a vast amount of oil revenue for Iraq.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said satellite images released on Thursday showed plumes consistent "in detecting oil fires in the past from satellites in space."

Saddam has ordered oil wells 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 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 Persian Gulf from January to May 1991, soiling 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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