March 24. 2003 6:10AM

Firefighters Driven From Iraq Oil Fields

Associated Press Writer

KUWAIT CITY- Fighting around the southern Iraq oil fields that U.S.-led forces had previously thought were secure has driven out civilian firefighters trying to put out the oil well blazes, the top firefighter said Monday.

"It's not nearly as safe as they said it was," said Brian Krause, vice president and senior blowout specialist for Houston-based Boots and Coots. "We're kind of sitting ducks out there."

The Iraqi resistance in the oil fields challenges U.S. claims that southern Iraq is quickly falling under allied control.

U.S. Marines declared the southern Rumailah oil fields in Iraq unsafe for journalists to visit Monday, forcing the cancellation of a trip under Marine escort intended to give the media a first-hand view of the blazing wells.

Krause said that he had been told that Iraqi fighters dressed as civilians had clashed with British forces near the oil fields Sunday night, killing two British troops and forcing the evacuation of his firefighting team.

Lynn Wray, a spokeswoman for the British military, said that she could not confirm the fighting or location but said that two British soldiers were missing in southern Iraq.

U.S. military officials said that armed Iraqis in civilian clothes, some of them possibly using women and children as screens, were operating in the southern Rumailah area.

Krause was meeting with U.S. military officials Monday in Kuwait to discuss tighter security arrangements so his men can pursue the dangerous work of putting out the fires.

Securing the Rumailah oil fields was one of the top priorities of commanders of the invasion into Iraq; military planners want to use Iraq's oil output to finance the rebuilding of the country.

British forces initially secured the area with nearly all of the key infrastructure intact.

Krause said putting out the fires appears to be a straightforward job, easier than extinguishing the 700 well fires set by Iraqi forces fleeing Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

"I don't see them as too difficult," Krause said. "The biggest challenge now is getting in enough water and security."

Krause worked for the legendary oil firefighter Red Adair and was involved in the seven-month effort to douse Kuwait's fires in 1991.

Company experts surveyed the region by air Saturday and said the biggest difficulty would be getting enough water to put out the fires in the desert. In 1991, fires at many of Kuwait's wells were doused by pumping water from the Persian Gulf.

A U.S. soldier from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force stands guard at a burning oil well at the Rumeila Oil fields March 23, 2003 in Iraq. Several oil wells have been set ablaze by retreating Iraqi troops in the Rumeila area, the second largest offshore oil field in the country, near the Kuwaiti border. (AP Photo/Ian Waldie/Pool)
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