THE scene is apocalyptic. Through a sooty haze of acrid, choking fumes, columns of fire spew from a desert floor in roaring, billowing clouds of orange flame. Thick plumes of heavy smoke hang low, and on the ground lie lakes of tarry brown crude oil. Greater Burgan, one of the largest oil fields in the world, is a disaster area.
As they withdrew from Kuwait last week, Iraqi troops left behind a trail of destruction, much of which had clearly been planned in advance. (See related story, Page 5.)
``They began mining the oil installations three or four months ago,'' Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) manager Ahmed Murad told reporters on Tuesday. ``They wired up the charges in early January,... and blew them up the day before the land invasion began.''
Of the approximately 1,000 oil wells in Kuwait, the Iraqis blew up and set fire to around 800, according to Mr. Murad, who said that about 550 wells are still burning. It will take several years and tens of billions of dollars to set the Kuwaiti oil industry on its feet again, Murad warns.
Oil has been Kuwait's lifeblood, accounting for more than 90 percent of gross national product, but it will be at least a year before the country is exporting again, and a full five years before it can reach its prewar export level of around 2 million barrels per day (bpd), Murad predicts.
``Phase 1 is to bring the situation under control,'' he says. ``And even that could take one to two years.'' KOC officials hope that they will be able to piece together enough undamaged machinery in the short term to produce at least 50,000 bpd to meet Kuwait's own energy needs.
This will not be an easy task, however. Although damage to the country's refining capacity is not extensive, Murad says, about half of the gathering centers where oil, gas, and water are separated have been destroyed, as have storage facilities in Ahmadi, KOC headquarters. Some of the installations were blown up by coalition bombing, he adds.
While some of the damage can be repaired, the explosions have also done irreparable harm to the wells. For a start, the flames are consuming an estimated 6 million barrels of oil a day, three times Kuwait's normal output.
``Whether we lose 10 or 15 percent of our reserves depends on how quickly we can put the flames out,'' Murad says. Before the crisis, Kuwait's proven reserves were enough to last 100 years at current pumping levels.
As the oil gushes uncontrollably under high pressure, the KOC official explained, it also damages the natural reservoirs below ground, and some wells will be worthless even when they are no longer ablaze.
Putting out the fires will be a lengthy process, that cannot even start until the oil fields have been cleared of mines. Once the area is safe, teams of US experts in oil-well blowouts, hired by KOC, will attempt to bring the fires under control.
Seventy-five percent of the fires, Murad estimates, can be put out from the surface by placing explosives by the wellhead and starving the fire of oxygen.
Larger fires require a secondary well to be drilled to the foot of the well on fire. Mud or cement is then pumped down, blocking off the flow of oil at the base.
THE willful destruction wrought on the oil fields was also visited on Kuwait City, although not with such overwhelming results. Apart from the sheikhs' palaces hit with shell-fire during the invasion last August, other prominent buildings in the capital were put to the torch by departing Iraqi troops, residents say. These include several hotels, the National Assembly building, and the airport.
Iraqi soldiers also blew up or burned the city's electricity generating and distribution network, its water system, and most telephone exchanges.
Overall, however, relatively few buildings have suffered severe structural damage, and reconstruction work will be limited. Thousands of homes and offices, on the other hand, were ransacked by occupation soldiers.
Most of the looting appears to have been carried out by undisciplined troops, or by men given a free hand by their officers. Kuwaitis also blame foreign residents for some thievery. But other acts of pillage were more organized.
``Once the Iraqis came and told us to give them a list of all the medicines we had, so that they could bring from Baghdad what we were missing,'' a technician at the Farwaniyah Hospital recalls. ``Actually, they just used the list to see what we had so that they could take it away.''
In the capital, streets are littered with abandoned, wheelless cars, toppled lampposts, primitive brick sentry boxes, and the debris of roadblocks. Its buildings and walls are scrawled with Iraqi graffiti; its shops stripped of goods.
So far work has not begun on cleaning up the city, although efforts are under way to restore basic services. The government awarded its first reconstruction contracts this week, launching a 90-day emergency program to rehabilitate Kuwait's roads, airport, harbor, and public buildings.