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US’ first catch: prize oil fields

Dubai, March 21 (Reuters): US-led allied troops moved swiftly today to secure Iraq’s vital oil facilities and snuff out oil-field fires on day two of a war Washington says is not about capturing the country’s vast petroleum wealth.

The US has vowed to take over the giant fields of Kirkuk in the north and Rumaila in the south to protect Iraq’s resources from sabotage and return crude exports to world markets as quickly as possible.

Washington has advanced on its targets, capturing the Faw peninsula on Iraq’s southern tip, leaving British marines in control of crucial oil installations.

“All our targets were successfully captured,” said Colonel Steve Cox, commander of the landing force.

“The main thing now is sorting the mess out in the daylight, make sure all the sites are protected and assess the local situation.”

A spokesman announced over the public address system of the British flagship carrier that the first marine units were successful in securing their three main targets — an oil metering station and two pipeline outlets.

Those outlets are thought to be the UN-authorised oil terminal of Mina al-Bakr and Khor al-Amaya, recently put to use by Baghdad for illicit smuggling.

Iraq exports some one million bpd of Basra Light crude from Mina al-Bakr in the south and about 700,000 bpd from the other UN-approved outlet via a pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

British forces are now aiming to take Iraq’s second city Basra, close to the country’s big southern oilfields in a bid to thwart any sabotage attempts by Iraqi forces, who torched more than 700 Kuwait oil wells in the 1991 Gulf War.

“The US Marines are moving well into the Rumaila oilfields and it seems like we will be able to seize much of the oil structure intact,” Col Chris Vernon said.

The forces will need to move rapidly in order to control fires which are already blazing in Iraq’s southern oilfields.

Britain said up to 30 oil wells had been deliberately set alight in southern Iraq, a fraction of the 400 wells in the Rumaila fields — the workhorses of the southern oil region capable of pumping more than one million barrels per day (bpd).

“Several of the oil heads have been set on fire by (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein’s forces in an attempt to deflect us from the task,” British forces spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood said in an interview in Doha.

The picture in northern Iraq was less clear amid unconfirmed reports US special forces had secured the giant oilfields around Kirkuk, the biggest of Iraq’s 15 operational fields.

A US official said earlier this month that Iraq had placed explosives at the Kirkuk oilfields to prevent them being captured in the event of a US invasion.

The pipeline that supplies Iraqi oil from the Kirkuk fields to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan is still open and carrying crude but no tankers are waiting to be loaded.

Without tanker liftings, storage tanks are likely to be full by tomorrow, forcing a halt to pumping. The pipeline is now the only outlet for Iraqi crude exports after UN oil inspectors were evacuated ahead of the US-led attack. Iraq’s three main oil refineries at Basra in the south, Doura near Baghdad and Baiji near Saddam’s birthplace of Tikrit are also on the allied list of oil targets.

Extra spice

British military officers in the rearguard of the US-led war against Iraq had some extra spice for dinner on the terrace of a beachside luxury hotel.

An Iraqi missile flew past last night before burying itself in the sand a few kilometres from the Hilton, the base for US and British military media operations in Kuwait.

“It went by as we were sitting outside eating dinner. We heard it going overhead,” said a Royal Air Force officer, who asked not to be identified.“We could all have been toast.” It did not seem the diners were the target: “We don’t know what they were aiming at,” the officer said.

Kuwaiti officials said the missile landed near the Fahaheel fish market. One possible target was the nearby oil refinery.

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