Arab governments around the Gulf have drawn up secret plans in case Saddam Hussein blows up oil wells in revenge for a US-led invasion of Iraq.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam caused the region's worst environmental disaster when he deliberately destroyed about 600 oil wells as his forces retreated from Kuwait and southern Iraq.
Up to eight million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf, creating large slicks that threatened coastlines as far south as Qatar. More than 60 million barrels were burnt and released on land, causing vast black clouds and lakes of crude oil.
The most severe pollution affected 250 miles of Saudi Arabia's coastline, killing seabirds and fish and contaminating seabeds.
Official sources in the Gulf confirmed last week they fear that Saddam could again try to destroy the oil wells and production facilities under his control, to impede US plans to immediately take over his oil fields if they invade.
Backed by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Gulf region's marine protection agency, which was set up in Kuwait after the 1991 crisis, has drafted detailed emergency plans to cope with the potential disaster.
Unusually, the contingency plans have been supported by Iran, Iraq's long-standing rival.
Sources said that officials have already hired specialist oil clean-up companies as part of their preparations. Combating any leaks would be co-ordinated by the agency's emergency centre in Bahrain.
Some local observers believe that Saddam is unlikely to risk alienating Arab opinion by creating an environmental crisis. Arab governments are far more critical of current US policy towards Iraq than they were when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Other experts, however, are less convinced. Saddam is regarded as highly unpredictable and could believe that hindering the US invasion is a far more important goal.
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