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American Experts: Saddam Could Destroy Iraq's Oil Fields

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2003 – Iraqi troops destroyed Kuwait's oil fields during the 1991 Gulf War, and American officials are concerned Saddam Hussein will cause even more damage in Iraq if he feels threatened enough.

Bush administration officials are quick to remind that no decision has been made on possible military action to disarm Iraq, but military planners are working up plans for every scenario. A U.S. Central Command official told reporters here today, without going into specifics, that the Defense Department is working up contingencies to try to prevent such an oil field crisis.

When Iraqi troops fled from Kuwait with American soldiers on their heels, Saddam Hussein ordered them to destroy the country's oil fields on their way out. The economic, ecological and medical disaster this caused cost Kuwait billions of dollars to remedy. And the damage isn't 100 percent corrected today.

The American government wants a post-Saddam Iraq to be economically viable. For this to be possible, the Iraqis need the estimated $30 billion in annual revenue they can draw from their oil fields.

The United States has credible evidence Saddam Hussein has both the means and the intent to blow up his own country's oil fields if he is deposed. "We see this as a real potential crisis," the official said.

At the same time they were setting fire to Kuwait's oil wells, Saddam's troops dumped about 5 million barrels into the Persian Gulf. U.S. experts estimate the environmental impact from this to be 20 times that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.

Should he follow the same path in Iraq, and U.S. intelligence sources suggest he may, Hussein has the capacity to dump 2 million to 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf per day. In just a few days, this could bring about a disaster 40 times worse than the Exxon Valdez spill.

Hussein's sabotage in Kuwait cost the Kuwaitis roughly $20 billion to remedy. Similar actions in Iraq could cost up to $50 billion, based on the size of the two countries' oil fields, the official said.

Medical issues are a serious concern, as well. When crude oil burns, it releases a toxic substance called hydrogen sulfide. Its ill effects resemble those of cyanide, the official said. This is specifically a problem in northern Iraq, where the oil fields naturally have a very high hydrogen sulfide content.

Short-term problems include eye and skin irritation, dizziness, and respiratory difficulties. Experts still aren't sure how long lasting these respiratory problems can last.

World Health Organization officials believe Kuwait's annual death rate has gone up 10 percent since the Gulf War, which they attribute to the heavy smoke and toxic chemicals in the atmosphere.

Oil spilled on the ground can contaminate ground water supplies, while oil dumped in the Gulf can put desalinization plants at risk throughout the region. In arid climates such as Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, anything that threatens water supplies can become a disaster.

The CENTCOM official said such actions would have little effect on any military actions U.S. and coalition troops have the ability to maneuver around any hazard or on the world's oil supply currently Iraq only accounts for 3 percent of the oil pumped around the world in a day.

It would, however, devastate the Iraqi economy and that county's chances of success. The official said 95 percent of Iraq's income comes from oil.

"The bottom line really of all this is that the oil is a natural resource to the country of Iraq," the official said. "It gives them the ability to improve their own welfare. Obviously it provides commerce. It gives them money for education (and) infrastructure, and it really is the future of the people of Iraq. And destruction of that would be an act of terrorism in the most significant degree."

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