The Retreat: Oil Fires
Saddam seems to have thought that threatening to burn
Kuwaiti oil wells would immunize Iraq from attack. If so,
this proved to be a miscalculation.
In the event of an Iraqi retreat, Saddam intended for all
wells to be ignited. Iraqi demolition experts had begun
wiring all 1,294 active wells in mid-August 1990, then
had to rush in February 1991 to rewire 788 after Kuwaiti
oil workers disabled the initial wiring. Of these, 613 burst
into flame and 157 exploded without fire. Huge oil losses
and pollution resulted from 114 of these fireless explosions, which created gushers.
In addition to the setting of oil fires, 10 oil gathering centers were completely destroyed, oil pipelines were blown up,
and oil stored in terminals at the ports was poured into
the Gulf. The main purpose of directing oil into coastal
waters was to prevent an amphibious landing by coalition
troops, but it was also done to wreck marine habitats.
The sabotage included ignition of a few natural gas wells
and destruction of gas transport, storage, and processing facilities.
For health reasons, US Army Intelligence warned
American troops in January 1991 to stay more than 200
meters away from oil fires. The main concern was the hazard of hydrogen sulfide gas in the smoke.
Most of the sabotage to the wells and other oil facilities,
as well as the sinking of five anchored oil tankers, occurred during February 16-22, 1991.
Southeastern Kuwait, where the Burgan complex of oil fields lie, suffered the most oil damage.
Oil Wells Were Prepared for Sabotage
Saddam sent special teams of engineers to Kuwait to rig its oil wells with incendiary devices and later to detonate them. Land mines were planted around each well to hamper efforts to extinguish the fires.