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Kuwait: Security Heightened In Oil Fields As War Prospects Grow

Gulf states and U.S. military forces are taking steps to protect oil fields, refineries, and tankers from an attack by Iraqi missiles or by Islamic militants. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from southern Kuwait's Al-Burgan field about precautions there ahead of a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Al-Ahmadi, Kuwait; 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pumps are working around the clock at a score of gathering centers in the Al-Burgan oil field of southern Kuwait -- the world's second most productive oil field.

The pumps are collecting raw crude from 70 wells that dot the desert landscape to produce about 1.2 million barrels of oil each day -- more than half of Kuwait's daily OPEC production quota of 2.3 million barrels.

At one of the gathering centers, called GC-19, as much as 95,000 barrels of oil are processed each day and sent through a transit pipeline to the Mina Al-Ahmadi oil terminal on the Gulf coast about 20 kilometers away.

The freshly extracted crude oil is separated from water and natural gas at each gathering center so that it can be sold on the international market. Facilities like GC-19 had to be built from scratch after the Al-Burgan field was torched by the retreating Iraqi army in February 1991.

But Khaled Muhammad, an information officer for the Kuwait Oil Company, says he is confident that emergency plans will protect Kuwait's oil fields from a similar fate if a U.S.-led war against Baghdad leads to any terrorist or Iraqi counterattack.

"There is an emergency plan set up between the Kuwait Oil Company, the Ministry of Defense and all the government [emergency services] in Kuwait just in case of anything escalating from the possible war against Iraq. They've calculated every single [threat.] Some of [the precautions] are known to the public. Others are being kept confidential just in case. The Kuwait Oil Company, the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, and its affiliates are ready for any possible emergency -- such as evacuation or any [other] emergency actions that have to taken in the future in case of war with Iraq."

U.S. and British military forces also are working with Gulf Arab states to protect the oil fields, refineries, and tankers in the region.

The U.S. Coast Guard has brought in equipment to contain any oil that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may order to be dumped into the Persian Gulf in an attempt to repeat the kind of environmental havoc caused by Iraqi troops before they fled Kuwait 12 years ago.

U.S. Navy spokesman Lieutenant Josh Frey says both air and sea patrols are now monitoring international shipping across the entire area of the U.S. Central Command, which includes the waters from the horn of East Africa and the Persian Gulf to the coast of Pakistan.

Abdul Khaleq Mustafa Ali, a spokesman for the Kuwait Oil Company, notes that the oil field fires of 1991 were caused by explosives that occupying Iraqi forces had literally lowered into Kuwait's oil well shafts.

But Ali says Iraq will not be able to strike Kuwait's oil field infrastructure so accurately from across the border. He told RFE/RL he is absolutely confident about the defensive measures now in place.

"Iraq is not capable of delivering any bombs or shells by aircraft. The only way is to do it is through missiles. And the missile system in Iraq is [not so accurate. Also,] there is a good defense system in Kuwait. There is a whole Patriot [antimissile defense] system in Kuwait."

Security experts say Islamic militants do not appear capable of waging a widespread terrorist bombing campaign against oil field installations or shipping in the Gulf region.

But they warn there is a possibility of isolated terrorist attacks like the one against the French-flagged "Limburg" oil tanker off the coast of Yemen last October.

And oil industry analysts say that threat is keeping insurance costs high for oil tankers in the Gulf, despite the armada of U.S. and British ships that are in the region to help protect commercial shipping.

A Blackhawk helicopter and two Chinook helicopters -- both painted with the gray colors of U.S. Navy aircraft -- could be seen flying low altitude patrols over the Al-Burgan oilfield yesterday afternoon. The Blackhawk is a fast patrol helicopter while the massive, twin-propeller Chinooks patrol in pairs and are capable of rapidly inserting ground troops and armor into remote areas to counter terrorist threats.

Kuwaiti police also have tightened their patrols on the roads around the nearby Al-Ahmadi oil refinery.

Inside GC-19, Abdullah Al-Zubi sits at a control panel where he can watch all of the approaches to the facility on five video screens. He also has two computer monitors that show him the pressure in the pipelines and how well the pumps are working.

Al-Zubi says if there is an attack by Iraq, he is ready to shut down the collection center in seconds by pushing a single button.

"For emergency shut down, we have one switch here to control the gathering center. If there is any emergency, we will push the button and it immediately will shut down all of the valves [and stop the risk of an oil fire spreading through the pipelines.] The wells will have to be closed manually. We don't have any switch from here for the [oil] wells."

The Kuwaiti Oil Company already has capped the wells in two oil fields near Kuwait's northern border with Iraq and removed the rigging. The government says that in the case of war, additional closures in the north would involve a total of about one-third of the country's daily oil production.

But Amad Sultan, who is in charge of the Kuwait Oil Company's production in eastern Kuwait, told RFE/RL that closures in the north will not affect the country's overall oil exports because any cutbacks near the Iraqi border will be replaced by increased production in southern Kuwait.