American and British special forces are reliably reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive military and intelligence sources to have begun taking over Iraqi oil fields close to the Kuwait border and around the port town of Basra, in audacious commando operations. These fields account for three-quarters of Iraq’s oil output. The fields occupied are North Rumeila, which abuts on the border with Kuwait, as well as West Qurna and parts of Majnoon, near Basra. Allied troops are now attacking the oil refineries of Basra and Al Nasiriyah, before moving on to Al-Samawah
and smaller oil fields near the Iranian border.
First reports from the region indicate that the takeover met hardly any resistance, which accounts for the slight damage to the oil fields and their installations.
This key operation is the most important to be carried out by combined Western special forces since April last year, when small units of undercover and elite troops first entered Iraq. Since then, these units have established footholds in northern, western and eastern Iraq.
Washington decided to seize the southern oil fields early last week after receiving intelligence reports from Kirkuk that Saddam Hussein had posted armed Iranian opposition Mujaheddin al-Khalq fighters armed with explosives, some of them suicide units, with orders to set the oil fields of Kirkuk on fire the minute an American or Turkish invasion began.
(This report was first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly last week)
The news spurred the decision by US war planners led by General Tommy Franks to keep the southern oil fields safe from this peril. The order to the commandos to go forward was most probably issued on Saturday night, February 16. It explains Kuwait’s sudden announcement a few hours earlier closing its oil fields along the Iraqi border and evacuating non-essential personnel.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, a part of the force went in overland from northern Kuwait while a second contingent was parachuted from US transport planes, with US Marines Apache helicopters taking part in the action.
The Washington-Ankara crisis that erupted this week over the use of Turkish bases for the US invasion of northern Iraq served the US war command as a useful distraction for keeping the move on the southern oil fields under wraps.
The Bush administration needed to keep the operation secret for a number of reasons:
1. Saddam Hussein had to be prevented from taking military action to foil the seizure of the oil fields. Since he had put his trust in the world leaders opposing US military action winning their standoff against the United States at the United Nations, he could not be seen engaging in hostilities. However, if the oil field takeover had been released, he could not have avoided it.
2. Iraqi and al Qaeda terrorist cells planted around Persian Gulf shores with orders to strike when the Americans invaded Iraq must not be alerted. The objective here was to keep them from finding out they had missed the train until their main incentive – the onset of the American invasion – had slipped out of their grasp.
3. America would have already seized Iraq’s most prized strategic asset before tabling a second resolution at the UN Security Council and before the UN arms inspectors made their third report on February 28. Washington would thus have stolen the thunder of its opponents in the Security Council and rendered its proceedings irrelevant.
The US war command expects the capture of the southern Iraqi oil fields to be completed within a few days, attaining two of the war’s primary goals:
First, vital oil fields, pipelines and storage facilities will have been taken.
Second, Baghdad will have lost those oil fields and their revenue from minus day one of the war, a loss that could hasten the instigation of regime change from within the ruling clique.
A third possible gain presented itself this week: A fait accompli on this scale could persuade the Turks to come aboard the American war wagon after all and overcome Kurdish resistance to the entry of Turkish forces into northern Iraq. As a result, the northern front which was close to collapse earlier this week may be reconstituted at the eleventh hour.
There are signs on the ground that the crisis between Washington and Ankara may be more verbal than real. Our sources report that US troop transports, including those of the 3rd Division, have begun landing in Turkish airfields. Between 2000 and 2500 American troops have reached Turkish bases with light vehicles and armored carriers – though no tanks or self-propelled heavy artillery are being discharged. They are still aboard freighters at sea.
Turkey’s final reply to the US ultimatum is expected Friday, February 20.