KUWAIT CITY (AP) – Fighting around the southern Iraq oil fields that U.S.-led forces had previously thought were secure has driven out civilian firefighters trying to put out the oil well blazes, the top firefighter said yesterday.

Shabina Khatri
Um Khaled covers her face with a handkerchief to protect herself from smoke as she walks from the market in a Baghdad suburb.

“It’s not nearly as safe as they said it was,” said Brian Krause, vice president and senior blowout specialist for Houston-based Boots and Coots. “We’re kind of sitting ducks out there.”

The Iraqi resistance in the oil fields challenges U.S. claims that southern Iraq is quickly falling under allied control.

U.S. Marines declared the southern Rumeila oil fields in Iraq unsafe for journalists to visit yesterday, forcing the cancellation of a trip under Marine escort intended to give the media a firsthand view of the blazing wells.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Iraqis set demolitions on some well heads and detonated them, but only seven fires were burning in a field with 500 well heads. Speaking at the U.S. Central Command’s Gulf post in Qatar, Brooks said that was “a very important story for the future of Iraq.”

Krause said he was told that Iraqi fighters dressed as civilians had clashed with British forces near the oil fields Sunday night, forcing the evacuation of his firefighting team.

“Yesterday, we captured five POWs that just drove up, waving a white flag. They just surrendered to us,” Krause said.

“A little while later, five more POWs drove up to some British soldiers waving a white flag, and when they got close they opened up with machine guns.”

Lynn Wray, a spokeswoman for the British military, said she could not confirm the fighting or location, but said two British soldiers were missing in southern Iraq.

U.S. military officials said armed Iraqis in civilian clothes, some of them possibly using women and children as screens, were operating in the southern Rumeila area.

Krause was meeting with U.S. military officials yesterday in Kuwait to discuss tighter security arrangements so his men can pursue the dangerous work of putting out the fires.

Securing the Rumeila oil fields was one of the top priorities of commanders of the invasion into Iraq; military planners want to use Iraq’s oil output to finance the rebuilding of the country.

British forces initially secured the area with nearly all the key infrastructure intact.

Krause said putting out the fires appears to be a straightforward job, easier than extinguishing the 700 well fires set by Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

“I don’t see them as too difficult,” Krause said. “The biggest challenge now is getting in enough water and security.”

A team of 25 Kuwaiti firefighters operating independently across the border extinguished one of seven wells known to be burning yesterday, said Sheik Talal Al Sabah, spokesman for Kuwait’s oil industry.

“Al-Rumeila is a large field,” Al Sabah said. “In the area where the Kuwaiti team is working, it is safe.”

The Americans and Kuwaitis plan to meet today to coordinate their efforts and get water and fire teams to wells burning deeper inside Iraq. The farthest one is about 12 miles from the Kuwaiti border.

“They’ve got water. We need water,” Krause said.

Krause said he heard that Iraqis blew up pipelines 20 miles inside the country during the past day. U.S. military officials could not immediately confirm the report.

Krause worked for the legendary oil firefighter Red Adair and was involved in the seven-month effort to douse Kuwait’s fires in 1991.

Company experts surveyed the region by air Saturday and said the biggest difficulty would be getting enough water to put out the fires in the desert. In 1991, fires at many of Kuwait’s wells were doused by pumping water from the Persian Gulf.

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