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Iraq War Fear: The Burning Fields

In the demilitarized zone in northern Kuwait are the rusty remains of an oil storage and processing facility destroyed by Iraq in 1991.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News /
In the demilitarized zone in northern Kuwait are the rusty remains of an oil storage and processing facility destroyed by Iraq in 1991.

During the 1991 Gulf War, retreating Iraqi troops blew up and set ablaze many of Kuwait's oil fields. Huge fires and more than 30 million barrels of spilled oil caused massive environmental and economic damage. Now some military analysts say a desperate Saddam Hussein could once again attack Kuwait's oil fields -- or wreck his own to try to slow any U.S. attack. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

Every 15 minutes or so a United Nations patrol drives along the demilitarized zone dividing Iraq and Kuwait. There are oil facilities on either side of the border.

In 1990 Saddam accused Kuwait of "slant drilling"-- or sucking oil from the Iraqi side. He used that charge as part of his justification for invading the emirate. Kuwait denies ever drilling in Iraqi soil.

Today, under the watchful eye of U.N. patrols, both countries seem content to tap an underground oil reservoir that straddles the border and currently yields 80,000 barrels a day.

But Westervelt reports that the atmosphere is tense. Kuwaiti oil workers' families are worried for their safety. When oil field operator Faris Salim Al Hajri is on the night shift, he says, "Every minute my son calls, my mother calls me [to say] 'How is Faris? Are you OK?'"

Now 12 years after the Gulf War, Kuwait is still dealing with the environmental hazard of the destruction left behind by retreating Iraqi troops. The rusty remains of oil processing and storage facilities dot the landscape. A smelly reservoir holds what's left of the 30 million barrels of oil spilled during the 1991 war.

And now there's worry in some quarters that Saddam might again attack Kuwait's wells -- or his own, Westervelt reports. Some military officials say the Iraqi leader could torch Iraqi wells to try to stop advancing U.S. troops or as part of a spiteful scorched-earth plan that he would try to blame on U.S. forces.

But others are skeptical. Robert Ebel, energy program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says he doubts Iraqi oil workers would destroy their future livelihood if they knew Saddam Hussein's days were numbered.

To head off any self-destruction plan by Iraq, the U.S. military plans to quickly seize Iraq's northern and southern oil fields in the event of war. And, in part to protect against sabotage on its side of the border, the Kuwaiti government plans to seal off the oil-rich northern half of its country starting Feb. 15. Anyone who works or lives in this huge expanse of desert will have to get special permission to enter.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.