LONDON – Saddam Hussein may have organized a meticulous plan for sabotaging Iraq's oil fields in a scorched-earth tactic designed to cripple Iraqi production.
The oil industry has buzzed with reports in recent weeks that Iraqis are rigging their wells with explosives, hoping to slow a U.S.-led attack and making the country's oil wealth worthless for any new government.
"We can confirm reports that (Saddam) has taken measures to booby trap oil wells by wiring the wells so that one person can blow them up," said Defense Department spokeswoman Megan Fox.
"If the worst happens and he does detonate something that causes the oil wells to catch fire, we'll do everything we can. Those assets belong to the Iraqi people, and as much as possible we'd like to keep them intact," she said.
In 1991, Iraqi troops needed just a few days and some plastic explosives to destroy more than 700 well heads and turn Kuwait's occupied oil fields into a desert inferno.
A loss of oil from Iraq -- home to the world's second-largest oil reserves -- could crimp supplies for importing countries, including the United States, which depends on Iraq for 2 percent of all the crude it consumes.
However, both Saudi Arabia and Venezuela have pledged to keep the oil flowing in wartime.
Oil exports are also a major source of the money that would be needed to pay for Iraq's reconstruction after a war. Because of their strategic importance, the Defense Department says it will try to secure Iraq's oil fields quickly to prevent Iraqi forces from damaging the country's 1,685 wells.
When Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait in February 1991, they attached plastic explosives to well heads and piled sandbags against them to direct the force of the explosions for maximum effect.
The result was geysers of burning crude at 603 wells, serious damage at more than 100 others and widespread environmental degradation. Teams of firefighters from the United States, Canada and eight other countries worked from April until November to put out the fires.
Most of the teams used sea water pumped through Kuwait's empty oil pipelines to battle the fires. The heat was so intense, at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that water sometimes continued boiling on the ground for two days afterward, said Mark Badick of Safety Boss, Inc.
"We've had fire helmets melt on our heads," said Badick, whose Calgary-based firm put out 180 of the Kuwaiti well fires.
Firefighters from Hungary had a different technique, using two jet engines mounted horizontally on a tank chassis -- a homemade vehicle they called "Big Wind" -- to blast flame-retardant foam at the fires.
It took Kuwait more than two years and $50 billion to restore its oil output to prewar levels. If Iraq sabotaged its oil fields, any cleanup could take far longer and cost much more.
Iraq's fields and pipelines are badly run-down after 12 years of U.N. economic sanctions. Its fields are also much farther from the sea than those in Kuwait, meaning a ready source of water might not be so easily available.
Destruction could be especially bad if Iraqis set off explosives underground, deep within the well shafts themselves. If that happened, firefighters would have to drill a new "relief well" and pump a mixture of sand, gel and mud into each damaged shaft to try to plug it up and stop the blowout.
"It's a long, arduous process," Badick said. Whereas he and his crews put out as many as five fires a day in Kuwait, cleaning up after a single underground explosion can take two months.
Even if the Iraqis did booby-trap their oil fields, Manouchehr Takin, an analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies, said Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and other OPEC member countries could increase production to offset Iraq's 2 million barrels a day in exports.
Saudi Arabia, which has the world's largest crude reserves, repeatedly has suggested it would boost its output to keep supplies flowing. Also, the United States and other oil importing nations could tap their 4 billion barrels in strategic petroleum reserves, if necessary, to cover a shortfall.
Brown & Root Services of Houston has drawn up a plan for the Defense Department for containing and assessing any damage to Iraqi oil installations, but the Pentagon so far has awarded no contracts.
The challenge for such companies would multiply if Iraq used chemical, biological or radioactive material to sabotage its oil fields.
Special suits designed to protect a wearer against biological or chemical agents would disintegrate in the heat of a burning well. Firefighters might have no choice but to wait until the fires burn themselves out.
"That's a whole new ball game," said Peter Gignoux, head of the oil desk at Salomon Smith Barney.