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ARLINGTON, Va. — Protecting Iraq’s oil wells would be a major priority for U.S. troops if the United States goes to war against Saddam Hussein, a senior defense official said Friday.

Saddam “has the capability and, in fact, the interest to cause damage” to some or all of Iraq’s wells, the official, who declined to be named, told Pentagon reporters. “We see that as a real potential crisis.”

Planners in U.S. Central Command “have crafted plans to allow us to secure and protect fields as soon as possible” in the event of a war, the official said.

Iraq has about 1,500 active wells, with 1,000 in the southern part of the country on land about the size of New Jersey, and 500 wells in the north, on territory about as large as Rhode Island, the official said.

In case of a war with Iraq, “We would like to very rapidly gain control over as much of that oil infrastructure as possible and preserve it,” the official said.

The official said that the U.S. military’s interest in the oil fields is not an effort on the part of the Bush administration to gain control over some of the world’s largest oil deposits, but to preserve a critical economic source for the Iraqi people.

Using U.S. troops to secure and protect Iraq’s oil fields “is certainly a challenging task, and not necessarily a traditional military task,” the official said.

Nevertheless, as Central Command has developed its war plans for Iraq, “we have focused a great deal of effort” on preventing the destruction of Iraq’s oil infrastructure, the official said.

The official declined to offer specifics, saying only that “special operations forces could be used, [as well as] conventional forces, very mobile forces that can be put in [to Iraq] in a variety of ways.”

The U.S. military’s most “mobile” conventional forces are traditionally airborne troops, such as the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, although the Pentagon has not actually implemented a large-scale tactical airdrop of troops since the invasion of Panama.

Military officials have “no firm evidence,” such as satellite photos, to prove that Iraq’s military is preparing to blow up oil infrastructure, the official said. “But there are a number of indications through reliable intelligence sources that these activities have been planned and in some cases have begun,” the official said.

Pentagon officials cited Saddam’s actions during the Gulf War. In 1991, Iraqi troops set more than 700 Kuwaiti wells on fire, and released 5 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, producing a 600-mile slick. Thousands of animals and fish died, and unknown numbers of Kuwaitis suffered respiratory and skin diseases that continue today, the official said.

It would take “two to three years” to put out the fires if most or all of Iraq’s 1,500 wells are burned, the official said. Iraqi troops could also release 2 million to 3 million barrels of oil each day into the Gulf, affecting up to 500 miles of Gulf coastline and as many as 15 water desalinization plants.

If Saddam orders the entire infrastructure destroyed, the cost to repair and rebuild could be between $30 billion and $50 billion, the official said.

Smoke from burning wells would make it harder for U.S. military pilots to fly, the official said, “but the effects would be minimal.”

As for ground troops, “any time you spend a lot of time inhaling soot there is an impact,” the official said, but chemical-biological protective gear “and our ability to maneuver on the battlefield would somewhat mitigate the effect of troops,” the official said.

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