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Britain Accuses Iraq of Deliberately Torching Some Oil Wells - 2003-03-21


Britain says Iraq has begun to deliberately set its oil wells on fire in southern Iraq, but, so far, the damage has been less than had been feared. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says coalition forces are racing to secure the vast oil region.

Defense Secretary Hoon told British television Friday that Iraq has torched several oil wells, as U.S. and British forces advance northward from Kuwait. "The latest estimate I received, before I left the Ministry of Defense this morning, was that, perhaps, as many as 30 oil wells had been set on fire deliberately," he said. "But put into context, that is, perhaps, not as bad as we feared, because there are many hundreds of oil wells in the southern part of Iraq. And, although we feared that there might be a systematic effort by Iraqi authorities to destroy all of those wells, that, so far anyway, has not been the case."

Mr. Hoon said British ground forces had encountered some initial resistance, as they moved into Iraq. But he said the Royal Marines have already scored one important victory. "British Royal Marines had a significant success overnight, securing the al-Faw peninsula. This was a vital target, because there were real fears that the Iraqis would open the floodgates, and pour oil into the Gulf, causing a massive environmental ecological disaster," he said. "By the early [allied] attack, and securing of the al-Faw peninsula, that has at least been prevented so far."

On a sadder note, Britain is mourning its first casualties of the war. Eight Royal Marines died along with four American servicemen, when a U.S. helicopter crashed in northern Kuwait. Officials say they believe the crash was an accident.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told British radio the deaths show how risky the war is. "Those service people who have lost their lives and their loved ones are obviously utmost in our hearts at the moment," he said. "And the fact that such risks have to be taken, and it is a difficult environment even in terms of accidents, illustrates the bravery and commitment of our troops."

Mr. Straw also urged the British public to be patient, as the war could take some time to finish.