Larry Flak looked as if he had been born to put out burning oil fires, which was just as well because 30 yards behind him smoke and flames were erupting into the sky from a roaring wellhead. He estimated the temperature of the fire to be 1,700F.
"This one's not that hot, actually, because it's not burning cleanly," he said with a long Texan drawl. "The one you passed back there oil and gas burning together I'd say that's around 3,000F. That's enough to vaporize steel."
Mr Flak, 48, who has been fighting oil fires from Nigeria to the Falkland Islands for 30 years, is part of a team whose job is to tackle the fires and plug the wells, seven of which are burning in southern Iraq after being set ablaze by retreating Iraqi soldiers.
The team's motto, said the team leader, Brian Krause, was: "They light 'em, we fight 'em." But it is not just about putting out fires. The work that Mr Flak and his colleagues, from the Houston-based company Boots and Coots, were doing yesterday in the Rumaila oilfields close to the Kuwaiti border reveals much about the priorities of America and Britain as they seek to oust Saddam Hussein. Oil, it seems, and not people, comes first.
Iraq has the world's
second-largest reserves of oil, second only to Saudi Arabia. The country has a minimum of 112 billion barrels and with sufficient investment it could be producing six million barrels a day within five years. While this American-led war may not have been driven by oil, it is oil that will pay for Iraq's reconstruction, and Washington and London are taking no chances with the security of this precious commodity. These oilfields were one of the very first parts of southern Iraq secured by Allied troops after they marched across the border from Kuwait.
Furthermore, Washington had clearly been planning for this months ago. Mr Flak, dressed in red overalls and a white hard-hat, said his company had been in negotiations with the American government since September over coming to Iraq to douse fires.
Setting a wellhead alight was a simple enough trick to achieve, he explained. The oil from the Zubair formation, 9,000ft below the surface, was light crude easy to ignite, especially if the wellhead was packed with explosives. "It would probably light if you threw a match at it," he said.
But putting the fires out is not so easy. The flames have to be doused using water and the wellhead then plugged and fitted with a valve. The team's equipment stood at hand
new, shiny mechanized machinery, forklifts and big water tanks that could have held thousands of gallons.
Today they are due to get the vital water from the Kuwaitis, said Mr Krause. "They have been very good."
Had they been able to hear them, the people of the nearby town of Safwan would have been delighted by Mr Krause's words. They have not had running water for a week. For while Rumaila contains riches beyond belief, Safwan 10 miles away across a desert littered with burnt-out vehicles and dead dogs simply contains angry, poor Iraqis whose water and power supply was destroyed when the Allied forces advanced. They have been living on handouts and rainwater ever since.
Yesterday afternoon, on the outskirts of town, two women were scooping up dirty water from a puddle and pouring it into a bucket fashioned from a cooking oil tin. They did so as naturally as one might toss items into a shopping trolley at the supermarket.
In the middle of the town, on a junction close to the mosque, a crowd gathered not entirely aggressive but angry and frustrated and in the mood for answers. A quietly spoken man, the English teacher from the school, translated for some of the others when they learnt they had a British visitor.
"They want to know why nothing bad is ever said about America and Britain," he said, his voice a hush. "Why do the soldiers treat us roughly at the check-points? Why did they shoot two young boys this morning they were 12 or 13 years old. Why is it only bad things said about Iraqis?"
Another man, who gave his name as Saad, was equally direct. "Saddam Hussein was good," he declared without being asked. "Last week there was food, water, electricity. Now there is nothing. I am not happy. America and Britain why this? Last week was good. We could sleep at night, but
What could one tell the Iraqis gathered at a street corner, children persistently asking for water or something to eat? That most people in Britain were opposed to the war, that millions had marched through London to send that message, that all that oil in the desert belonged to them and that the nice Mr Blair and Mr Bush were "protecting it for the Iraqi people"? "People are angry," said the teacher. "People are scared." It was a point he did not need to make.
On the way out of town a seemingly endless convoy of American and British troops roared passed in their armored vehicles, weapons drawn. The people of Safwan eyed them as they passed. The children waved and called out for water.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd