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Washington File Staff Writer

U.S. and British troops are moving quickly to extinguish fires at a number of Iraqi oil wells and prevent the destruction by Iraqi troops of strategic oil fields that will be vitally important in ensuring Iraq's future economic recovery and prosperity.

"United Kingdom and American marine forces are in the southern oil fields as we speak protecting (the) Iraqis' future," U.S. Army General Tommy Franks said at a March 24 briefing in Doha, Qatar.

On March 24 the Defense Department announced that it has designated the army to oversee plans to extinguish oil well fires and to assess and repair damage to oil facilities during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with civilian commercial contractors and others, will carry out a plan encompassing the full range of activities that might be necessary to restore or continue the operation of the Iraqi oil industry's infrastructure. Besides extinguishing oil well fires, these activities include damage

assessment, repair or reconstruction of infrastructure, and the cleanup of oil spills or other environmental damage at oil facilities, the Defense Department said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said after coalition forces "saved the southern oil fields for the Iraqi people," firefighters working to extinguish fires have uncovered evidence of Saddam Hussein's efforts

to sabotage the oil installations.

Kuwait's senior firefighter, Aisa Bouyabes, told the Associated Press on March 24 that he found electrical wires at several damaged wellheads that were the same type as those that Iraqi troops used to blow up Kuwait's oil wells during the 1991 Gulf War.

In a March 24 statement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair commented on evidence of Saddam Hussein's intentions to sabotage Iraq's oil fields and underlined the importance of quickly securing the nation's

strategic resources.

"The oil wealth was mined and deep mined at that," Blair said. "Had we not struck quickly, Iraq's future wealth would even now be burning away."

President Bush reiterated on March 16 U.S. intentions with respect to preserving Iraq's oil wealth.

"We will work to prevent and repair damage by Saddam Hussein's regime to the natural resources of Iraq and pledge to protect them as a national asset of and for the Iraqi people," Bush said.

U.S. and British efforts to secure Iraq's oil fields are intended to prevent the type of eco-terrorism Saddam Hussein's regime carried out during the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq released over 5 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf in 1991 and set over 700 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire as Iraqi troops retreated, according to the U.S. Defense Department. The Defense Department estimates that Iraqi destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells during the Gulf War had an environmental impact 20 times larger than that caused by the oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaskan waters in 1989.

Prior to the start of the current conflict, the Defense Department estimated that any effort by Saddam Hussein's regime to again destroy Iraq's oil fields would "have the potential to double the disastrous effects experienced in Kuwait in 1991."

Adlai Amor of the World Resources Institute, an environmental research and policy organization in Washington, concurred. As Amor explained to the Voice of America, "Iraq has 2,000-plus oil wells. And so the potential is much greater."

Iraq holds more than 112 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, second largest in the world behind Saudi Arabia. Iraq's true resource potential may be far greater, however, as the country is approximately 90 percent unexplored due to years of war sanctions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

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