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Environmentalists Voice Fears of Iraqi Oil Well Fires - 2003-03-21

Environmentalists fear Iraq could set fire to its own oil fields in a repeat of the scorched-earth tactics used in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War. They say the consequences could be worse this time.

In 1991 Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to set fire to more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells as they fled the country.

That year the fires burned for more than eight months, spreading soot, acid rain, and other pollution nearly 2,000 kilometers away. Kuwaiti hospitals saw more patients with bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, and other illnesses in the aftermath.

Iraq also spilled four million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, killing tens of thousands of birds and contaminating aquatic life for years afterward.

Spokesman Adlai Amor of the World Resources Institute, an environmental research and policy organization in Washington, says if Saddam Hussein uses the same tactics in Iraq, the consequences could be much worse.

"You are looking at Kuwait with 600 oil wells. Iraq has 2,000 plus oil wells. And so the potential is much greater," he said.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said it would be a crime for the regime to be destroying Iraq's oil wealth.