SOUTHERN IRAQ -- U.S. and British troops have captured many key facilities in Iraq's southern oil fields, saving them from possible sabotage and ensuring their use for the country's postwar reconstruction, senior military officers said Friday.
American units advancing west of the southern city of Basra secured the Rumeila field, whose daily output of 1.3-million barrels makes it Iraq's most productive. Coalition forces also discovered that only seven oil wells were on fire in southern Iraq -- far fewer than many officials had feared, although smoke could be seen in photos taken by satellites.
"All the key components of the southern oil fields are now safe," Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, told reporters in London. "We have specialist civilian contractors on their way who will be in the area very shortly, in a day or two, to deal with the oil well fires."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that "only about 10 wells that we know of, out of possibly 1,000 in that area," had been damaged.
He said several were on fire or gushing oil, but firefighters and repair crews would be sent soon.
Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that allied troops had seized the port city of Umm Qasr in the al-Faw peninsula along with the main oil conduits along the al-Faw waterways. They also were sweeping through the southern Iraqi oil fields.
"These fields, if we're successful, should be secured sometime later today, and they will be a great resource for the Iraqi people as they build a free society," Myers said.
Allied forces moved quickly after thrusting into southern Iraq from neighboring Kuwait late Thursday. In a daring amphibious and airborne assault, U.S. and British troops captured the tip of the strategic al-Faw peninsula, a gathering point for the pipelines that carry crude from southern Iraq to the export terminals of Mina al-Bakr and Khor Al-Amaya in the Persian Gulf.
Iraq has the world's second-biggest proven crude reserves and typically pumps about 2.5-million barrels a day, or 3 percent of global supplies. More than half its output comes from Rumeila and other fields near Basra.
The capture of much of the oil infrastructure in southern Iraq -- especially complex facilities for shipping, storing and loading crude -- helped ease concerns in a volatile oil market. Importers and traders had feared that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might destroy many oil wells to deny their use by a U.S.-backed successor government.
In the first Gulf War, more than 700 oil well fires ignited by retreating Iraqi troops had to be extinguished.
Analysts played down the significance of the oil well fires.
"That oil wasn't going to get exported anyway," said Leo Drollas, chief economist of the Center for Global Energy Studies in London. He noted that fighting has effectively halted shipments from Iraq's Persian Gulf terminals. "Whether it burns or stays in the ground makes no difference to the oil market."