At least 150 of Kuwait's 950 oil wells have been set ablaze by Iraqi troops as part of a "scorched earth policy" that has blanketed a quarter of the occupied nation with smoke and cut off electricity and water, President Bush and Kuwaiti officials said Friday.
The torching of the wells came as allied forces continued to pour tons of bombs, missiles and artillery shells onto Saddam Hussein's military positions in Kuwait and southeastern Iraq in anticipation of a massive coalition ground attack, according to U.S. military officials.
Bush, who issued an ultimatum in Washington on Friday warning Iraq to commence a withdrawal from Kuwait by noon EST today or face a major allied ground assault, said Hussein started the fires "anticipating perhaps that he will be forced to leave. . . ."
"He is wantonly setting fire to and destroying the oil wells, the oil tanks, the export terminals and other installations of that small country," Bush said. "Indeed, they are destroying the entire oil production system of Kuwait."
In Baghdad, a spokesman for the ruling Revolutionary Command Council denied that Iraqi forces were burning Kuwaiti oil fields and called for a U.N. investigation of the allies' accusations.
In other developments:
Baghdad Radio broadcast communiques to its front-line commanders contending that the allied ground offensive threatened by Bush has, in fact, already begun. The Iraqi claim was swiftly and emphatically denied by allied military officials.
Saudi Arabian experts raised their estimates of the size of an oil slick that is clogging the Persian Gulf south of the Kuwait-Saudi border. The kingdom's Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration said more than 138 million gallons of oil were fouling Gulf waters in that area. Earlier Saudi estimates had ranged from 21 million to 126 million gallons. The allies say Hussein deliberately dumped the oil into the Gulf; Iraq claims allied bombing caused the slick.
Iraq launched a Scud missile toward the Dhahran area of Saudi Arabia, but it "exploded on its own in the air before it was dealt with and its debris fell in a desert area," the Pentagon said. There were no reports of injuries. Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said three Scuds fired by Iraq on Thursday were all launched from within the city of Baghdad, "and from that we derive that the Iraqis are trying to use the civilian population of Baghdad to protect their Scuds."
Oil Well Fires
Vast plumes of greasy, black smoke towered thousands of feet into the air from the oil facility fires. Pushed by high winds, wisps from the noxious pall drifted as far as Riyadh, the Saudi capital 250 miles to the south.
Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, a U.S. military spokesman in Riyadh, described the fires as "an orchestrated, systematic destruction of the oil-producing capabilities of Kuwait."
In addition, the Iraqi forces in Kuwait have cut off electricity to the estimated 300,000 Kuwaitis still living under occupation and destroyed the small nation's main desalination plant, according to a Kuwaiti official, who asked not to be named.
"There was a shortage of water before," the Kuwaiti official said. "Now water has stopped for the houses."
Wael Abdul-Rahman, a spokesman for the Kuwaiti Information Ministry in Dhahran, said that Hussein is bent on destroying everything of value in Kuwait.
"When we get it back, it will be an empty desert," he said.
The oil wells burned in two bands on Friday, one across northern Kuwait and a second running across central Kuwait, just north of about 300,000 Iraq troops camped across the border from allied ground troops.
The smoke from the fires, which contains high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, could pose a threat to Iraqi troops as dangerous as any they face across the border, officials in Washington said.
If allied troops are ordered into Kuwait, they too, could face operations beneath the smoke, but they are equipped with chemical weapons suits that would filter out the toxic gases, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.
Wearing the suits would likely slow an allied ground attack, since the bulky protective gear makes operations more difficult to perform. But military officials in recent days have called it a near certainty that the allied troops would have to wear the suits anyway to protect themselves against possible Iraqi chemical weapons attack.
"We're a little puzzled . . . why he would do that in proximity to his own forces," said Rear Adm. John (Mike) McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The billowing smoke also could make air operations in the region more difficult, since many allied warplanes and missiles rely on radar and guidance systems that do not "see" well through smoke and dust.
A British spokesman in Riyadh, Group Capt. Niall Irving, said the smoke was beginning to hamper flight operations, but that the pall wasn't expected to become a major problem.
"The haze and smoke hindered Jaguar (warplane) attacks on artillery positions inside Kuwait," Irving said. "The smoke is poor from an air point of view. . . , but the commanders are not significantly concerned."
Gen. Kelly, at the Pentagon, said U.S. commanders in the region "don't see anything that we don't think we'll be able to work through. It may require some work-arounds. We are prepared to make them."
Kelly warned that allied forces would be monitoring Iraqi troop movements closely beneath the veil of smoke, adding: "If they try to pull a trick under cover of the smoke, they may regret it, and we may have a trick or two of our own."
"We have prepared for this, and our forces are prepared to operate in that environment," Neal said.
Neal said he was not sure whether allied bombing could knock out the blazes. "We are not doing anything right at this moment to put out the fires," he said.
Several hours before Friday's fires broke out, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat had predicted that Hussein might torch the wells if he felt that an allied ground attack was imminent, according to a report by the Agence France-Presse news agency.
Baghdad "will use the oil card if it is cornered," Arafat was quoted as saying. "Baghdad has mined all the wells in Kuwait."
The PLO leader is said to have called upon the West to imagine what would happen if all the oil wells in Kuwait were burning:
"The consequences would touch not only Kuwait, which would no longer exist, but the entire region," Arafat was quoted as saying. "And a belt of pollution, pushed by the wind, would reach Japan, the Pacific, to the American coasts."
Greenpeace and other groups have expressed concerns about the environmental effects of the smoke.
Iranian diplomats at the United Nations in New York noted that Hussein had used the tactic of torching oil wells before, when his troops withdrew from Iranian territory they had taken during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War.
Allied forces using artillery, attack helicopters and tactical fighter planes continued to pressure Iraqi positions north of the Saudi border on Friday, destroying six mobile Scud launchers; four Scud missiles, including one about to be launched; 18 tanks, and 15 other vehicles; and taking more than 100 prisoners, according to the U.S. military command.
Altogether, coalition aircraft flew 2,700 sorties against Iraqi battlefield targets and lines of communication, Gen. Neal said.
He said one U.S. Marine was killed and five were wounded during one of a series of continuing artillery duels.
For the first time during the war, there were reports that allied planes are using napalm, one of the most controversial weapons of the Vietnam War.
Photographers near the front said they watched Marines load canisters of the jellied gasoline onto combat support aircraft that took off moments later for the north.
One photographer said pilots told him they had been using the napalm on "bunkers, artillery positions" and other emplacements. A senior Marine officer, who asked not to be named, told the Associated Press that the napalm was to be used against entrenched enemy troops, "just like in Vietnam."
However, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John Tull, a Central Command spokesman, said the napalm was being used only on the oil-filled trenches Iraqi troops are using as defense barriers. "It is not being used on personnel," Tull said.
"Warfare is a very nasty business, and this is one of the nasty weapons that is, from time to time, used," Air Chief Marshal Michael Armitage told British Broadcasting Corp. radio in London.
"If you're trying to dig out troops from well-entrenched bunkers and so on along the Kuwait border . . . then one of the ways which you might do it is by using napalm," he said.
U.S. troops nudged their way to the Saudi-Iraqi border on Friday, clearing the first access channels through the earthen berms erected by the Iraqis as a border obstacle.
Tanks fitted with plows cleared the breaches in an operation that reportedly was under way all along the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders.
Allied engineers reportedly have pushed some roads beyond the Saudi border, and at least one refueling strip has been established for helicopters inside Iraq, according to pool reports.
Military vehicles running the main supply road south of the border have begun to display a telling message scrawled on their dusty flanks: "This Truck Has Been in Iraq."
In Washington, Gen. Kelly called the military effort on what could be the final day of aerial bombardment alone "a normal progression" and denied that cease-fire negotiations had prompted any change in the air campaign. Instead, he said, allied bombers continue to "prepare the battlefield" to reduce allied casualties.
"We are in a position where either we kill that army or it will give up and go home, and I think that has always been an option," Kelly said.
Just hours after President Bush issued his challenge to Iraq to begin an unconditional withdrawal by noon today, Kelly said that U.S. forces do not yet have orders to attack.
"I have not been directed and we have not sent messages and we don't have an order yet from the President of the United States to conduct combat operations," Kelly said.
"There's no guarantee that we're going to have a ground campaign at noon tomorrow," he added. "I feel fairly sure we're not going to do it at 12:01 tomorrow . . . and again, I would make the point that we think we'll achieve tactical surprise and we think the surprise will be great."
Neal said that while the U.S. command has no firm assessment of the Iraqi forces' will to resist, he cited one incident that might provide a clue: An unarmed allied F-18D forward control airplane aimed its nose at some front-line Iraqi troops and they raised their arms in surrender.
Kennedy reported from Riyadh and Healy from Washington. Times staff writer Kim Murphy, in Dhahran, Saudia Arabia, contributed to this report with material from pool reports reviewed by U.S. military censors.
KUWAIT ON FIRE
President Bush said Friday that Iraq has begun a "scorched earth policy" in Kuwait, destroying the country's entire oil production system of wells, tanks and export facilities. According to U.S. officials at military briefings:
145 oil wells have been set ablaze or destroyed
At least 100 have been exploded within the last 24 hours
No additional Kuwaiti oil is being pumped into the Gulf
25% of Kuwait is covered with black smoke, but the oil field fires have not yet hindered allied air operations
KUWAIT'S OIL INDUSTRY A look at the situation before the war:
FIELDS: Eight major oil fields, operated by the national Kuwait Oil Co.
RESERVES: 94.5 billion proven barrels, the world's third-largest reserve after Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
NUMBER: About 1,000 oil wells.
TYPE: In more than 90% of the active wells, the oil gushes naturally to the surface. The Al Wafra oil field is one of few that requires pumps.
PRODUCTION: Total capacity was 2.7 million barrels per day; the pre-invasion production was about 1.7 million barrels a day.
REFINING: Capacity was more than 800,000 barrels per day.
REVENUE: Oil production accounted for about half of the $24-billion gross domestic product.
REFINERIES: 3 major ones: Mina Al Ahmadi, built in 1946 and expansion completed in 1988; Mina Abdullah, built 1958 and expansion completed in 1989; Shuaiba, completed in 1969.
TERMINAL: Mina Al Ahmadi's oil terminal, nine miles offshore, was capable of handling the world's largest tankers.
PREVIOUS FIRE: Before the war, the largest oil well fire in Kuwait was at Burgan in 1964, when flames shot up 450 feet. It took six weeks to extinguish.
DOLLAR COST: Estimates to restore oil production capacity range from $50 billion to $100 billion.