Reports that several oil wells in southern Iraq are on fire have heightened fears that President Saddam Hussein will pursue a "scorched-earth" policy in the face of US-led attacks.
US-led forces hope to secure Iraq's oilfields against sabotage
Any widespread attempt to sabotage Iraqi oilfields could set back post-war reconstruction efforts considerably - putting out large oilfield fires can be a lengthy and costly exercise while a new Iraqi government would lose valuable revenue if it was unable to resume exports promptly.
In the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq blew up hundreds of Kuwaiti wellheads, causing fires that took seven months to extinguish.
Oil production was restored to pre-war levels only after two years and spending of $50bn (£32bn).
Riches of Rumaila
Early reports did not identify the precise location of any Iraqi fires but southern Iraq is home to the country's second largest oilfield and its most valuable undeveloped reserves.
The largest oilfield in the south is South Rumaila to the west of Basra, which, with production capacity of 750,000 barrels a day (b/d), ranks second only to the 850,000-b/d Kirkuk field in the north.
Other substantial southern assets are North Rumaila at 450,000 b/d, Zubair (200,000 b/d) and West Qurna (150,000 b/d).
In total, the southern fields have capacity to produce about 1.7 million b/d of Iraq's total 2.8 million b/d capacity.
The region also contains 3 million b/d of Iraq's total 3.75 milllion b/d of undeveloped capacity, according to the Iraqi oil ministry.
The Basra area is also important because it provides the export route for a good deal of Iraqi oil.
The Mina al-Bakr deep-water terminal has capacity to export about 1.4 million b/d while recently repaired facilities at Khor al-Amaya offer further capacity.
Both facilities would be likely targets in any concerted attempt to sabotage Iraq's oil industry while destruction of the pipeline linking the southern oilfields with the north would prevent oil being diverted to the northern export route.
The US has warned Iraqi troops not to destroy oil facilities. One of the early priorities for invading coalition forces will be to secure oilfields and related infrastructure.
UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon on Friday said there had, so far, been no systematic Iraqi effort to destroy wellheads.
Oil prices rose modestly after the first reports of the fires but US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham played down the significance for the world economy.
"World energy supplies are more than adequate to compensate for any disruption these acts may cause," he said.