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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Kuwaiti Firefighters Battling 'Disaster' At Rumaila Oil Fields

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is near the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait two days after being forced out of southern Iraq because of the region's deteriorating security situation. He files this report on efforts to stop the fires still burning at Iraq's Rumaila oil fields.

Near the Iraqi border, northern Kuwait; 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Oil wells on fire in Iraq's southern Rumaila oil fields continue to spread vast clouds of black soot for scores of kilometers across the sky, but efforts to put out the blazes are under way.

A team of 25 firefighters from Kuwait are tackling seven major blazes whose flames are reported to reach several hundred meters high. The firefighters arrived at the oil fields three days ago to organize a fire-quenching effort that they say could take three weeks to accomplish.

In a telephone interview from the Rumaila oil fields, Ali Asad, one of the Kuwaiti team members, said that the biggest problem would be to bring in sufficient water to put out the flames. The fields are in the open desert some 30 kilometers north of Kuwait, and the distance makes it impossible for firefighters to pump in sea water from the Persian Gulf -- something they did to put out Kuwaiti oil fires set by retreating Iraqi soldiers in 1991.

Asad told me: "It's an environmental disaster. Our target is to end this disaster. The smoke has even reached as far as Kuwait City. It will cause a lot of children to become asthmatic."

I and other reporters drove through the Rumaila oil fields on 23 March before widespread security threats forced all journalists not embedded with military units out of southern Iraq two days ago.

We counted dozens of smaller fires in addition to the seven major blazes. They include fires along broken pipelines, where -- just like at the oil-well heads -- an unending supply of new fuel has been feeding the flames for more than a week.

A dull roar from the oil fires can be heard at considerable distances, as they send up twisting columns of smoke. The smoke has grown over the past week into vast clouds of oil that streak the sky and lie low on the horizon. Under the clouds, the desert sun has only a dull glow.

Coalition forces say that the Iraqi soldiers set time bombs at the oil-well heads and along pipelines in an effort to terrify advancing troops. When a bomb goes off, its force is magnified by all the fuel into an enormous fireball explosion.

We met one British soldier stationed with the unit in the oil fields who said some fires were set to block roads through the desert. He said that while driving past these places days later, he could feel the heat even through the thick walls of his armored car.

Security in the Rumaila fields has sometimes been problematic since U.S. and British forces took them in the opening hours of the war on 19 March.

Small groups of Iraqi fighters have been reported periodically returning to the area, forcing one U.S. firefighting company, "Boots and Coots," to postpone its arrival last weekend. The company says it will enter the oil fields later this week.