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Kuwait still recovering from Gulf War fires

From Ryan Chilcote

More than 1 billion barrels of oil were burned in fires set by Iraqi forces in their retreat from Kuwait in 1991.
More than 1 billion barrels of oil were burned in fires set by Iraqi forces in their retreat from Kuwait in 1991.

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Concern is mounting that Saddam may torch his own oil fields in the event of war as he did to Kuwait fields in the 1991 Gulf War. CNN's Ryan Chilcote reports (January 2)
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KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait (CNN) -- In the waning days of the Persian Gulf War, as Iraqi forces retreated to Baghdad, Saddam Hussein sent a team of engineers into the Kuwaiti oil fields and blew up hundreds of wells.

Over the next seven months, more than 1 billion barrels of oil went up in flames, and Kuwait and much of the Persian Gulf was engulfed in a poisonous smoke, creating a large-scale environmental disaster.

As the specter of a new conflict between a U.S.-coalition and Iraq looms, some fear that Saddam Hussein could repeat the tactics of 1991 within his own borders, plunging the region into another, even greater, environmental and economic catastrophe.

In Kuwait, the Persian Gulf War left behind heavy environmental damage. Day vanished into night, black rain fell from the sky, and a vast network of lakes was born ... lakes of oil as deep as six feet.

Saddam also poured 10 million barrels of oil into the sea. Thousands of birds perished, and the people of the Persian Gulf became familiar with new diseases.

"My child, my son, now he has a problem with his breathing. He can't breathe very well. ... Sometimes he's coughing and feel dizzy," said oil worker Mohammad Najaf. "The doctors they told me that [it was] because of the smoke that came after the invasion," he said.

'An environmental disaster'

"Right now in Kuwait we are noticing an increasing number of cases of cancer. We think it's related to what happened in '91 when we had the oil fires. A lot of people breathe very bad air," said Dr. Meshal Al-Mesham, head of the Kuwait Environment Protection Agency.

Indeed, Kuwait is still recovering from the environmental damage it suffered during the Persian Gulf War, according Jonathan Lash president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on global environmental and development issues.

"What many recall as a short-lived conflict resulting in the liberation of Kuwait was an environmental disaster -- one from which the region and its people have yet to recover," Lash said in a written statement, adding: "The oil that did not burn in the fires traveled on the wind in the form of nearly invisible droplets resulting in an oil mist or fog that poisoned trees and grazing sheep, contaminated fresh water supplies, and found refuge in the lungs of people and animals throughout the Gulf."

"Today," Lasher said, "Saddam could deliberately create another catastrophe if attacked."

Kuwait's Burgan oil field, second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field, was nearly destroyed in just months. The environmental impact is still being felt.

The fires, according to a report prepared for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander in the Gulf War, consumed more than 4 million barrels of oil a day at their height.

According to the same report, within six days of the fires being set, a cloud of smoke stretched from Baghdad across the United Arab Emirates to Iran, and "black rain" fell as far away as Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan.

"Of course. I mean, he did it one time. I expect him to do it again. He is the man that you expect the unexpected, and as long as he did it for Kuwait he would do it for other parts, even if it is for his own oil fields," said Ahmed Al Arbeed, chairman and managing director of the Kuwait Oil Co.

Lakes may hide unexploded ordnance

Although much of the oil gushing from the ground burned in the fires, a sticky residue formed lakes that mar the landscape of Kuwait to this day.

Clean-up efforts are hampered by the knowledge that below the surface of these oil lakes may be unexploded ordnance from the conflict.

"I expect him (Hussein) to do it again," said Ahmed Al Arbeed, chairman of the Kuwait Oil Co.

But with the second largest known reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, Iraq simply has more fuel for the fire, and the Iraqi oil fields are less accessible than Kuwait's.

"You just look around, everything's flat -- the oil had just kind of spread all over the ground. It was just messy to get into, but in northern Iraq the terrain would be a lot more rough," said Clyde Kinsel, who works in the Kuwait oil fields for drilling contractor Pride International.

"It would be a lot harder to get equipment and personnel into these places to do an adequate jobs."

Pentagon planners believe that Saddam would set fire to his own oil wells if his hold on power is threatened (Full story), and Secretary of State Colin Powell, interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday, gave the following assurance that the lessons of 1991 had been learned:

"The oil fields are the property of the Iraqi people, and if a coalition of forces goes into those oil fields, we would want to protect those fields and make sure that they are used to benefit the people of Iraq and are not destroyed or damaged by a failing regime on the way out the door," Powell said.

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