With war looming, more than 25,000 British soldiers and army engineers now in Kuwait are responsible for securing Iraq's Rumailah oil fields, just 30 kilometers from the Kuwait border. Ensuring uninterrupted oil production at those fields, Iraq's largest, will be a key part in any post-conflict scenario in Kuwait. The coalition forces' biggest aim is to prevent a repeat of 1991, when Saddam Hussein's retreating forces set fire to Kuwaiti oil facilities, a conflagration that took seven months to put out. Recently, an official from the British army (who requested that his name be withheld) spoke to BusinessWeek's Frederik Balfour in Kuwait about the challenges facing coalition forces if fighting breaks out. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Q: Given Britain's long history of dominating the Iraqi oil business, how do you prevent Iraqis and their neighbors from believing this isn't going to happen again?
A: The British position is very clear. The Iraqi oil fields are the [property of] the Iraqi people, and the military planning takes full account of the economic significance of these fields to them. If we're able to secure the Rumailah oil fields, we'll make sure that in the media it's widely understood they will remain Iraqi. Iraq's oil is Iraq's -- is now and will be in the future.
Q: What media will you use in Iraq to convey this message?
A: It would have to be an Arab broadcaster. People say the Iraqis listen to Al Jezeera and to the BBC world service in Arabic. Securing the oil fields is a powerful message to the people of Baghdad -- [we're] saying "your economic prosperity is guaranteed."
Q: So what do you see as the foreign role in developing this?
A: The fields are only operating at 25% capacity. They could operate at a far higher level, but this will take big money [because it's an] expensive business to pump oil and gas under pressure. [These resources] will come from foreign oil companies.
Q: What expertise does the army bring then?
A: We're geared for war-fighting operations, not running oil fields. But clearly, there are certain things we can do to facilitate immediate repair if needed. We're now speaking in detail to oil experts in order to get information on how it works. We have to understand how a gas and oil separation plant works. Also critical are the pumping stations and the manifold outlets here at Al Faw Peninsula [the southern tip of Iraq adjacent to its narrow waterway access to the Persian Gulf.] This is a very narrow aperture.
Q: What about the Kirkuk oil fields [Iraq's second-largest oil facility in the north]?
A: That's up to the Americans, I think. I'm not privy to that planning. For sure if they have forces in Turkey they can use, then it will be up to them.
Q: How heavily guarded are the Basra-Rumailah oil fields?
A: It's a limited military protection with a light capability force. It's pretty rag-tag. I would describe it as light -- not the Republican Guard [Saddam's elite protection force], just the regular army.
Q: What are the best/worst scenarios?
A: The best case: The oil fields are secured intact and fully operating. The worst: There will be detonation and destruction by the Iraqi regime. Then we'll need serious civil oil expertise. It would be similar to after the Gulf war. We can do limited first aid, but if the Iraqis torch the bloody things, there's nothing we can do.
The middle case is some level of damage caused by military operations. If you put military forces around them, there could be collateral damage to oil fields. The more we can achieve in a soft rather than hard approach when taking on the conflict, the easier our job afterwards will be. We're very clear on this as Brits. However, the U.S. has a slightly more hit-em-hard attitude toward this.
Q: Can you give me an idea of how you will take the fields?
A: No, we can't just broadcast our military plans, now can we? But I can tell you that our entire land force will be around 25,000, including two light-infantry brigades and an armored brigade, which together make up about 17,000 [soldiers], and the rest includes logistic elements. We have engineer regiments, and the resources we push at this will be dependent on the military situation pertaining at the time. The brigades would secure the oil fields, and they have engineers within that brigade.
Q: How soon do you expect to move?
A: Your guess is as good as mine. Political processes have to play out. Clearly, the ultimatum given for [Mar.] 17 will probably be a defining moment. But we're ready, and the Americans are ready.
Iraq is not a dysfunctional nation, like many Balkan states had become and Afghanistan. Our chances of it prospering shortly after any military operations are considerably greater, therefore. It's in our interests to preserve the infrastructure. It's not a war-ravaged nation.
Q: Aren't you worried about the coalition's lack of local knowledge?
A: Iraq has been a closed regime for many years with limited access for Westerners. "A bit of a black hole" describes it quite well. Our knowledge of exactly what goes on is not that great. That's a reality.
Q: What's the fate of Iraqis working the oil fields?
A: We encourage them to remain in their jobs and posts. We don't have expertise to run oil fields. The more we can keep the country's operations, civil administration, oil [operations running], the easier the post-conflict job.
Q: What role do you see for the French and the Germans in post-conflict rebuilding?
A: Economically, France and Germany will not reap the dividends. But if [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair wins on this, there would be huge economic benefits for Britain because we supported the U.S. -- diplomatic, political, and economic benefits.
Q: What about humanitarian assistance? Especially if the U.N. Security Council is bypassed?
A: We're looking for the lead from [the U.S.] State Dept. and an interim government. I don't think the U.S. would expect any lead from the U.N. In the immediate aftermath, we, the British military, will have to take on certain supervisory and liaison roles. We don't want to take on executive roles.
Once the situation allows, we will divert whatever [military] resources we can. We're building a limited humanitarian capability, including food, water, medical advice, as opposed to thousands of medicines. The problem is that all this diverts attention from the military campaign.
Q: Prisoners of war also divert a lot of resources.
A: Yes. To reduce the POW load, if they capitulate, we will say: "Go home, boys, put your weapons away." That way they haven't become POWs. The more we can do to reduce POW capability, the better.