Navy SEALs’ Action May Have
Prevented Iraqi Oil Disaster
By DAVID F. WINKLER
One of the legacies of Operation Desert Storm in
1991 was Iraq’s sabotage of Kuwait’s oil production facilities. The resulting plumes of smoke and slicks
of spilled oil were an ecological disaster that would
require months of cleanup.
In another war with Iraq, the question was not
whether Saddam Hussein would repeat such an environmental crime, but how soon.
In planning for what became known as Operation
Iraqi Freedom I — the liberation of Iraq from the rule
of Saddam Hussein — securing key Iraqi oil facilities
from saboteurs was a high priority. An obvious target
was a pair of offshore oil terminals — Mina Al Bakr
(MABOT) and Khor Al Amaya (KAAOT).
Planners estimated that the destruction of just one
of the platforms would create damage equal to a dozen
Exxon Valdez spills. Exxon Valdez spilled more than 11
million gallons of crude oil after running aground off
the coast of Alaska in 1989.
And as the primary transfer point of oil pumped out
from the Al Faw peninsula to awaiting tankers, these
two facilities would be critical for the economic vitality of a post-Saddam Iraq.
However, planners quickly realized that merely capturing the oil terminals might not advert disaster.
Demolition of onshore pipeline support valves for each
platform and their metering and manifold stations
located on the Al Faw could also cause the long-term
shutdown of the Iraqi oil spigot.
The mission of seizing these objectives at the onset
of the war fell to an American-led Naval Special
Warfare Task Group that had, at its disposal, elite
forces from Britain, Poland and the United States. The
prospects of success for this combined operation were
enhanced by months of training in Kuwait that included a pair of “mother-of-all dress rehearsals.”
In addition, the coalition, hoping to exploit reports of
poor morale among the enemy forces, dropped thousands of leaflets with capitulation instructions as well as
phrases dissuading soldiers and workers from destroying oil facilities and equipment: “You’re hurting your
family’s livelihood of fishing if you destroy the oil.”
With the commencement of combat operations just
before sunset on March 20, 2003, special warfare forces
departed for their targets. Having quietly closed on
their offshore objectives, U.S. Navy SEALs and Polish
GROM commandos boarded the MABOT and KAAOT
platforms, respectively, at approximately 2200 hours.
Some dozen Iraqis at MABOT quickly surrendered to
the SEALs, who then uncovered a large weapons cache.
Similarly, the Polish forces met little resistance at
KAAOT, capturing 18 Iraqis. With the platforms in
coalition hands, Royal Marines arrived to relieve the
American and Polish assault forces.
In contrast, Navy SEALs assigned to capture the Al
Faw installations had to deal with some adversity.
While eight MH- 53 Pave Low helicopters carried their
highly trained human cargoes to objectives that were
code-named “Coronado” and “Texaco,” an assortment
of British and U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft attacked
known enemy troop concentrations and fortifications
across the low-lying peninsula.
When arriving at “Coronado,” SEALs ran off the
back ramp of the big helicopters to find themselves
knee deep in oily muck. As they struggled to off-load
their equipment, they were exposed to an approaching
Iraqi vehicle. An Air Force A- 10 quickly eliminated
that threat and bought the SEALs valuable time, which
they used to seize the pipeline manifold complex. Soon
thereafter, Royal Marines arrived to establish a firmer
A threat remained as Iraqi troops gathered to the
north; however, close air support eliminated the
SEALs landing at “Texaco” also floundered in knee-deep mud and lost use of their three desert patrol vehicles. Moving out on foot, the SEAL assault team swept
the area and then captured its objective, finding no significant weapons or explosives. After securing the
south and east gates to the complex, the SEALs called
in the Royal Marines, who conducted a thorough
search of all structures and took 100 occupants as prisoners of war.
These decisive actions at the onset of the war
ensured there would be no repeat of what happened in
Kuwait in 1991. ■
Sources: U.S. Special Operations Command historian John
Partin provided declassified materials for use in this article.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical