Racing Saddam to Iraq's Oil Fields

Securing them before they're blown up is a massive challenge. Even harder may be putting out the fires if the wells do get torched

Next to grabbing Saddam Hussein himself, one of the most difficult tasks facing U.S. and British forces is preventing him torching Iraq's oil fields. If all goes according to plan, U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd, 82nd, and 101st Airborne Divisions will swoop down from the sky as soon as the bombs begin to drop. They'll seize Iraq's single-largest source of crude, the 10 billion-barrel Kirkuk field in the north.

At the same time, a Marine Expeditionary Force, aided by British troops, will race up from Kuwait to capture the massive Ramaila fields in southern Iraq. Combined, these two regions account for 70% of Iraq's oil production.

DEADLY PREPARATION.

  But beating Saddam to the detonator won't be easy. According to the Defense Dept., the Iraqi dictator has already sent two dozen boxcars of plastic explosives to the oil fields in preparation for a sequel to the first Gulf War, when black plumes of smoke darkened the skies over Kuwait's oil fields. With more than 1,500 working wells, Iraq has twice as many potential targets as Kuwait.

If fires are raging, troops and oil-well firefighters will face a far less manageable environment than they did in Kuwait. Iraq's land mass is 25 times larger than Kuwait's, and it's much more diverse topographically. Kirkuk has high mountains nearby. West of Basra, where the Ramaila fields are, the land consists of swamps and marshes. Near Mosul, where a network of pipes and pumping stations converge to send Kirkuk oil north to export markets via the Mediterranean Sea, the land is mostly desert and high sands. Firefighters would require different equipment for each type of terrain.

A lot more than oil is at stake. The cost to human life and health of torched oil fields could be catastrophic. Of immediate concern: Oil from the Kirkuk field is high in sulfur and might produce deadly sulfur dioxide gas that could endanger the 500,000 or so civilians who live nearby.

CHENEY CONNECTION.

  Then there's the environmental toll. The Kuwaiti fires, with the concurrent spilling of 5 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, were 20 times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster. While the fires were extinguished after nine months, the environmental cleanup continues to this day. Some Kuwaitis still suffer smoke-related respiratory problems, and nearly a third of the nation's water has been spoiled by contamination.

The potential cleanup has already sparked controversy back home. The Defense Dept. announced on Mar. 6 that Houston-based Kellogg Brown & Root had been hired to provide a plan to quickly extinguish any fires. Kellogg is a division of Halliburton (HAL ), the oil-field giant once headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney. "We weren't consulted. It's a sweetheart deal," grouses Michael J. Miller, chief executive of Safety Boss, a privately held Canadian oil-field fire-fighting outfit.

Halliburton and Defense say the work is part of a long-running contract the Army has with the company. In Kuwait, a number of businesses helped put out the fires, including Safety Boss; Cudd Pressure Control, a division of RPC Inc. (RES ); Wild Well Control, a division of Superior Energy Services (SPN ); and Boots & Coots International Well Control (WEL ), which has a business alliance with Halliburton.

Given the vast size of Iraq's oil fields, if Saddam does succeed in blowing them up, putting out the fires will no doubt provide plenty of work for everyone.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, Stan Crock in Washington, and Stephanie Anderson Forest in Dallas