Black smoke and scorched sand offer a sinister echo

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The Independent Online

The volume of smoke was so great that it showed up on satellite pictures of Iraq, the only visible sign of the fighting. Those on the northern border of Kuwait woke up to a dawn clouded by a thick black pall. Only one thing could be making that much smoke: Iraqi oil wells were burning.

The volume of smoke was so great that it showed up on satellite pictures of Iraq, the only visible sign of the fighting. Those on the northern border of Kuwait woke up to a dawn clouded by a thick black pall. Only one thing could be making that much smoke: Iraqi oil wells were burning.

Just as the Iraqi forces set alight to Kuwait's oil wells as they withdrew in 1991, yesterday they set fire to their own wells rather than let them fall into the hands of the invading American and British armies. The scale of the burning appeared less than initially feared as the day wore on – initially it was believed 30 wells had been set on fire, but that figure was said to have fallen to seven by afternoon.

Critics of the war have accused America of coveting Iraq's oil, while Washington has spoken of putting the oil in trust for the Iraqi people. Either way, the Americans do not want burning oil. The fires of 1991 were eventually put out in Kuwait, but it took time and effort, and environmental and human damage still persists. Tony Blair played up the potential ecological damage from the burning oil wells yesterday.

US and British forces have been anxious to take control of the southern oilfields before the Iraqis could set fire to them. And 30 wells, or seven, would represent an encouragingly small proportion of the 1,685 wells that make Iraq the world's largest producer after Saudi Arabia.

Reporters inside southern Iraq with American forces saw US Marines attack Iraqi forces around a burning oil-pumping station. The marines shot dead one Iraqi soldier as he tried to escape on a motorbike. The reporters described columns of smoke rising hundreds of feet. American troops were also said to have passed through the strategically important Rumaila oilfield, which straddles the Iraq-Kuwait border, but whether it had been fully secured was unclear last night.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, played up the seizure of the Al-Faw peninsula, which is vital for Iraqi oil production, on Thursday night by Royal Marines and US Navy Seals. The capture of the peninsula, where Iraqs surrendered after a brief period of stiff resistance, was "certainly a significant strategic success", Mr Hoon said.

"It means that we have a bridgehead from which to operate, but crucially it means that part of the plan of the Iraqi authorities to destroy their oil wealth has been averted." Mr Hoon added: "It is not just a matter of protecting the oilfields from sabotage, but more widely to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, the civilian infrastructure of Iraq remains intact."

The early reports of 30 wells being set alight caused a brief frenzy on stock markets and crude oil prices rose. But assurances from the International Energy Agency that global supplies were adequate, the lowering of the figure to seven, and the capture of oil installations helped to abate concern and prices dropped again. Saudi Arabia was thought to be increasing its production to make up any shortfall.

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