Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
In January of 1991 I was working as a librarian at Mishawaka- Penn Public Library in Mishawaka, Indiana. However through CNN television broadcasts that I watched at the library and radio reports that I listened to every evening, the Gulf War had a particular immediacy that made it seem as though the barriers of space between myself and the action in the Gulf were dissolved. I followed the action in the Gulf with a heightened sense of involvement, caring about everything that went on. I participated in various home-front activities, even having the name of a soldier posted in the Gulf for whom I prayed each evening. Each day's events hit home to me as though I were right there.
Most of all I remember my shock and horror at hearing about the massive oil slick in the Gulf and the deliberate firing of Kuwait's oil wells by retreating Iraqi soldiers. It was this deliberate, wanton act of senseless destruction that shocked me. It didn't even seem to have a reasonable strategic or tactical value. The firing of the oil wells in particular seemed to be nothing more than the spiteful behavior of an overgrown child -- "If I can't have Kuwait's oil, you can't either."
The image of a war fought over oil lingered with me long after the war was over and the flags that hung from balconies in my apartment complex vanished. When I was in high school I had predicted that wars would be fought over energy sources and it seemed to have come true. Thus I jumped at the opportunity to research the question and the facts behind the images of burning oil wells that had been so deeply burned into my brain.
The first and most important issue that must be addressed is whether or not the Persian Gulf War of 1991 was indeed a fight over oil or if this was only a line put out by the government for public consumption. Upon the answer to this question rests the importance of the oil spills and the fires. If the war was indeed over oil, Saddam Hussein's actions could have had a valid military objective behind them, whereas if the war was actually over more typical power-politics issues it can be legitimately argued that Saddam's actions were motivated primarily by spite. The second and third issues to be addressed are the effects upon the environment by the oil spill and the burning oil wells, and the reaction of the diplomatic community to them.
Was the Persian Gulf War over oil? This is a question on which even the experts are divided, and there is evidence to point both ways. Certainly Saddam's rhetoric immediately prior to his invasion of Kuwait centered around his accusations that Kuwait was deliberately manipulating oil prices to the disadvantage of Iraq and drilling horizontally to pirate oil from reserves lying within Iraqi territory. The American reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait also contained as much talk about the loss of the oil reserves in Kuwait being a threat to US security as there was talk of human rights violations and atrocities on the part of the Iraqi forces that invaded Kuwait. On August 8, 1990, only days after Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait, President Bush made a speech on his principles regarding Kuwait in which he referred to America importing half of its oil and claiming that the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and control of its oil was a threat to America's economic independence.1 (However a far more reasonable case could be made that continued American dependence upon imported oil was the real threat). This sentiment was made even stronger by the fear that Saddam might decide not to stop with Kuwait, but instead invade Saudi Arabia and take control of the vast reserves of oil in the larger desert kingdom.
However the mere existence of statements to a particular effect made by political leaders does not necessarily mean that they are the actual basis of the leaders' decisionmaking. This is particularly true in this age of mass communications and "spin-doctoring," when publicity- conscious politicians regularly tell people what they want to hear, neatly packaged in digestible sound-bites for people whose attention spans have become hopelessly shrunken by commercial television. In fact one might do well to discard entirely the rhetoric that was produced for public consumption as a matter of principle, assuming it to be pap.
Yet even the professional analysts who make it their business to look beyond the tawdry finery that the politicians lay out for their constituencies and pierce through to the heart of the matter are divided as to what the truth was in this respect. Grace Paley, who was a leader in the movement that opposed the war, claimed that oil was not the real reason for the war, but rather a convenient rallying-point to produce public support so that the war wouldn't end up another Vietnam. Instead she claimed that the Pentagon really wanted to test all its new "toys," the high- tech weapons and logistic systems that it had developed since the end of the Vietnam war. She also pointed out that there were perfectly suitable alternatives for oil as energy sources for every domestic use that America puts petroleum products to. The only exception was the war machine, which cannot be operated effectively on anything else. She cited Donella Meadows as suggesting that the primary motivating factor for the Persian Gulf War was for the Pentagon to secure its sources of energy in order to keep the war machine running and to continue to be able to wage war in general.2 Richard K. Thomas, taking a realist stance that would do George Kennan proud, stated that issues of power politics, and particularly American relations with Israel, rather than oil were the primary reasons to fight Saddam Hussein.3 In his analysis of the political situation surrounding the Gulf crisis he made a strong case that the real issue at stake was the balance of power between the various nations of the Middle East. If Saddam's conquest of Kuwait was permitted to stand it would disrupt the delicate balance and lead to long-term instability in a very volatile area.
Charles William Maynes went so far as to suggest that the war itself was the greatest threat to oil security. He pointed out that sending American troops into Kuwait to force Iraq out would cause even more disruption of oil production and would run the risk of destroying or at least badly damaging the oil-producing infrastructure of the area.4 The actual events of the Gulf War did bear out at least some of his ideas, since the Kuwaiti oil fields were kept out of production for a considerable amount of time after they were liberated. Not only did the oil fires have to be put out and damaged refineries and pipelines have to be repaired, but the areas in which the wells and related infrastructure were located had to be cleared of unexploded munitions which were there as a direct result of the conflict.
While many people on the street were having visions of skyrocketing gasoline prices, shortages and long lines at the gas pumps similar to what they had gone through in the Energy Crisis of the 1970's, professional economists took a far different view. William A. Niskonen suggested that the threat to Saudi sovereignty posed by the possibility of Iraq invading it might actually have caused a decrease in oil prices, particularly in futures markets, due to questions about title to oil reserves.5 Michael Tanzer pointed out that the Bush Administration calmed the volatility of the oil markets at the beginning of the actual war by releasing stocks of petroleum from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. He suggested that the government should have done this immediately after Iraq invaded Kuwait. (One wonders whether the Bush Administration allowed oil markets to remain volatile in order to increase popular apprehension and thus support for US military intervention). He also made a strong case that the development of petroleum futures trading and attendant speculation has led to increased volatility in oil markets, causing them to become unnaturally sensitive to political changes.6 Michael E. Canas, analyzing the response of oil markets to the invasion of Kuwait, showed that other producers simply increased their own production of oil in order to cover production lost when the Kuwaiti wells went off line. (It should be understood that many wells capable of producing are not in active production at any given time, but can be brought back on line if economic conditions warrant such action). Although prices did rise, including consumer prices, there were no shortages.7 David R. Henderson argued that Saddam could not cause oil shortages, even if he were to be able to control the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia as well as Kuwait. If he desired to reap the benefits of his conquests he would have to sell them on the market and thus become subject to the pressures of supply and demand. If he tried to increase prices above the general market, the consumer nations would simply turn to other sources, forcing him to lower his prices to keep them in line with the market. According to Henderson's market analyses the shortages of the 1970's that remain burned into the minds of so many Americans were caused not so much by Arab actions as by the American government's reaction to them, imposing price controls on the oil market and thus disrupting its balance. However as long as the government allowed oil prices to rise, people would set their priorities accordingly and conserve by reducing or eliminating non- essential consumption and reserving their budget of fuel for the trips that they regarded as truly important.8
However all the discussion about power balances in the Middle East overlook the primary reason why the power balance in the Middle East is so significant to American political interests. The United States has frequently looked the other way while one nation has overrun another and committed all manner of atrocities upon its inhabitants, or at least has done nothing more substantial about it than make statements to the effect that this is a terrible shame and the offending government should cease and desist. Why should this particular instance of one nation violating the sovereignty of another nation and disrupting the local balance of power produce such a determined response when so many others have produced almost none at all?
The Middle East and the balance of power between the nations within it is of critical interest to the American government because American access to cheap oil depends upon it. Sheldon Richmon stated that oil and the control of oil was the central reason for US interests in the Gulf area.9 Even if there was no imminent danger of America being starved for oil, in contrast to the common belief of the people on the street, the United States government was not willing to have its access to cheap oil threatened or curtailed. This was not the first time that the US took action to deal with a perceived threat to oil accessibility. The CIA led the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran and restored the Shah to power when Mossadegh tried to nationalize the oil industry and push higher oil prices in order to improve the lives of ordinary Iranians.10
Therefore a strong case can be made that the Persian Gulf War was fought primarily to secure continued American access to cheap oil, even if it wasn't a "war for oil" in the popular sense that was being thrown around in the popular media during that time. Thus it becomes possible that Saddam's actions in releasing oil into the waters of the Gulf and setting fire to the Kuwaiti oil wells were part of a strategic plan to destroy the very material that the war had been fought over, or at least to render it inaccessible to the victors for as long as possible. One writer has also suggested that Saddam may have released the oil slick in part for tactical reasons, hoping to hinder a possible amphibious assault by American forces.11
Whatever the reasons for Saddam's actions in releasing the oil slick and setting alight the oil wells, it cannot be denied that both of these actions had profound consequences for the environment, not only in the Gulf but in regions far removed from the conflict. The damage to marine life in the Gulf was severe, and the cloud of smoke and soot produced by the oil fires extended as far as Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and the southern parts of the Soviet Union.12 Black snow was recorded in the Himilayas and cases have been made for even more distant effects.
In a speech made in October of 1990 Saddam warned the West that he would light "a sea of oil" if Western forces attempted to force him out of Kuwait. It was known that he had mined the wellheads, so he certainly had the capacity to do so and there was every reason to believe that he had the resolve to do so. This came as a great shock to many people, but there was historic precedent for such an act. In World War II the Japanese tried to fire the Brunei oilfields before being forced out by American forces, but their attempts failed.13 In fact wartime ecoterrorism was nothing so new as a twentieth-century invention. In the thirteenth century Genghis Khan destroyed irrigation facilities in Mespotamia (which in an odd twist of fate would ultimately become modern Iraq) in order to bring the people to their knees by desertifying the area.14
Interestingly enough, Iraq was not solely responsible for the release of oil into the Gulf. On January 21, only a few days into the air war, the Allied air raiders hit five Iraqi supertankers capable of holding 100,000 metric tons of crude oil, which were anchored at offshore terminals. A few days later they hit the terminal at Mina Al Ahmadi. Shortly afterward Iraq opened the pumps at Al Hamaji and began the deliberate dumping of oil into the Gulf. According to Saudi claims up to eleven million barrels of oil (460,000 gallons) were spilled into the Gulf.15 No matter who was responsible for the release of any given portion of the oil that went floating along the waters of the Gulf, it could not be denied that this posed a severe threat to the environment of the area. The immediate concern was for the desalination plants on the Saudi coast which provided much of the fresh water used in the area and were vital for the war effort because they enabled the greatly increased population of military personnel to be sustained. But even as booms were being placed to keep the advancing oil slicks away from the vital desalination plants it became clear that this massive release of oil would do terrible things to the ecosystem of the area. Soon images of oil- soaked birds struggling in the slick were making their appearance on the televisions of the people on the homefront, provoking outrage at the senseless destruction of innocent creatures that could in no way be considered to be a part of the war effort. And the outrage was not limited to ordinary people. Michael Heseltine, British Secretary of State for the Environment, responded with anger at the danger that the oil slick posed to the various species of Gulf wildlife, and particularly to a number of endangered species which could easily be wiped out by the oil.
Moved by these scenes of suffering animals and birds, many people began to work at cleaning up the oil, even as the war was in its final stage. However the Saudis lost interest in the cleanup once their desalination plants were safe and many of the groups brought in from abroad did more photo-opportunty activities than real solid work.16 ARAMCO (the Arab American Oil Company) did some cleanup in late February of 1991, pumping oil off the water and trying to recover as much of it as possible. They claimed to have recovered as much as a million and a half barrels of oil, although their figures were often disputed.17 But they did little to address the problem of damage to the ecosystem of the area beyond merely removing the easily-recoverable oil floating on the surface of the Gulf. The Saudis also hindered attempts to clean up oil-contaminated shores through bioremediation (a process in which nitrogen and phosphate is applied to an oil spill in order to encourage bacteria to break the oil down) because they feared that the bacteria might get into the oil reserves and destroy the source of their wealth.18 This fear shows a pitifully amusing ignorance about the forces involved. The primary petroleum reserves are located in deep rock formations, far removed from the oxygen that these bacteria would need in order to function. Even if such bacteria could somehow contaminate drilling or pumping equipment and find their way to the oil-bearing strata, they would not be able to survive long enough to do any significant damage. But this ignorance coupled with greed delayed or even totally derailed cleanup attempts long enough that more damage was done by the oil.
The release of oil into the Gulf ecosystem caused damage in a number of different ways. The fumes rising from evaporating oil could kill air-breathing organisms, while dissolved hydrocarbons killed sea creatures. Those that didn't die outright absorbed petrochemicals into their tissues, causing injury or even death to creatures that ate them in turn. Corals and sea grasses were smothered by thick films of oil that were left by receding tides.19 During a survey taken in May, 1991, scientists found all invertebrate life on the affected shores wiped out and very few birds left in the intertidal areas after the oil spill.20 The rare Socotra cormorant had its breeding season in February, during the worst of the fighting and the highest levels of oil pollution, and there was strong fear that oil-caused deaths could cause its extinction.21
And it was not just the local birds that were threatened by the oil spills, since one of the major flyways for migratory birds lies along the Persian Gulf. Birds are particularly jeopardized by oil slicks or lakes of oil spilled on land because they have a tendency to mistake the oil for water and try to land in it or drink it. Unfortunately it is difficult to determine how many migratory birds died as a result of the oil spills because many of the carcasses disappeared into the oil.22 Also birds that did not die immediately would fly away and die at locations removed from the oil slick, making it more difficult to link their demise with the oil. Beyond the obvious oil-related deaths oil could also cause birds to expend too much energy preening, causing them to be less able to breed when their mating seasons came.23
Sea turtles were also adversely affected by the oil spills, even after the oil itself was removed from the Gulf. Because sea turtles must lay their eggs on beaches, the oily residue that remained in the sands of many areas posed a hazard to the embryonic sea turtles, penetrating their shells to kill them. Those hatchlings that did survive might well not be able to crawl down the oil-slick beaches. Furthermore sea turtles are instinctively "locked in" to given beaches and cannot switch to uncontaminated beaches for laying their eggs.24
If the oil slicks had far-reaching effects within the Gulf, the oil fires and the pollutants that they produced had even greater effects. In February of 1991, before the bulk of the oil wells had been put to the torch, elevated soot levels were already being detected by the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration's observatory on the summit of Mauna Loa in Hawaii.25 On February 21 Saddam made his "No Surrender" speech even as his forces were setting the oil wells alight. By evening almost five hundred Kuwaiti wells were burning, producing a cloud of toxic gasses approximately one thousand square kilometers in area.26 It is important to note that there is a difference between the effects of refinery fires and well fires. Fires in refineries burn rapidly as they consume the large stocks of oil in tanks and processing areas and thus produce intense heat. By contrast a well fire is limited by the amount of oil that passes through the wellhead and thus tends to burn at a lower temperature but continue burning for a longer time, particularly if the well is under natural pressure and requires no pumping equipment (the petroleum equivalent of an artesian well, as is the case with many of the Kuwaiti wells).27 The cloud produced by the burning oil wells soon grew to be two miles high, stretching four hundred miles to the south and sixty miles to the east and west. As rain droplets fell through these clouds they picked up oily contaminants, causing black rains to fall in Turkey, Iran and the Himalayas. Temperatures in Kuwait City, in the heart of the cloud, dropped 15ˇC due to the smoke cutting off sunlight.28 At first scientists thought that the smoke plume would be dispersed around the world and cause global temperature drops. But when it became clear that the bulk of the smoke would remain in the Gulf there was concern about highly acidic rain and smog damaging agricultural production in the area. Ironically it appeared that Iraqi farmers would suffer a large proportion of the acid rain and other smoke-related problems.29 Later studies revealed that the smoke remained confined to altitudes of 20,000 feet, while the stratosphere in the Gulf region began at about 45,000 feet. Therefore the smoke was not able to get into the jet streams and thus was not transported globally.30 However there were effects that ranged well beyond the Gulf. Meteorologist Thomas Sullivan established a link between the soot plume from the Kuwaiti oil fires and the devastating Bay of Bengal cyclone in late April of 1991. Hygroscopic (water-seeking) smoke particles acted to seed the clouds, causing the rain to be more intense and therefore more destructive than they would have been otherwise.31 Furthermore the floods in China later that year seem to have been caused by the hydrophilic nature of the soot particles injected into the atmosphere by the oil well fires.32 A case can be made that some proportion of the victims of the Bengali and Chinese storms should be counted as war casualties because the storm was made worse by the oil fires. This raises difficult questions about whether one can fight a just war with modern conventional weapons.33
If the oil spills were neglected, the oil fires received the opposite treatment. High-profile American companies such as Red Adair of Texas quickly went to work extinguishing the fires. They were joined by a Hungarian team using a modified jet engine called the "Big Wind" that blew out well fires like one might blow out a candle, enabling them to greatly increase the rate at which well fires were being extinguished. Unfortunately they quickly outstripped the ability of the engineers to cap the damaged wellheads, leading to large amounts of oil spilling onto the ground. By December of 1991 the last oil fire had been extinguished, but the oil flowing from the uncapped wellheads was creating huge oil lakes that were producing even more pollution.34 In some ways the oil lakes produced by these non-burning gushers posed an even greater danger to the environment than the smoke from the oil fires, since there was a strong possibility that the oil could leach into water supplies.35
However it was the smoke from the burning oil wells that got the greater publicity. First and foremost on people's minds was the health hazard that it posed to humans in the area. However it was difficult to determine just what the real risk of breathing oil fire smoke might be. Almost 50% of the Kuwaiti population had no pre-war health data to serve as a basis for comparison, while many of the hazards such as lung cancer could take years or even decades to develop.36 In Al Ahmadi, where the smoke was particularly thick, oily particles were causing respiratory ailments, especially among the elderly and those with pre-existing problems. In Saudi Arabia where the smoke density was less severe there were correspondingly less severe problems such as burning eyes and raw throats.37 It is suspected that dangerous pollutants in oil smoke that was inhaled by soldiers in the Gulf may have contributed to the health problems that are being termed Gulf War Syndrome.38
Humans were not the only ones to suffer adverse effects from the smoke. Birds picked up soot from flying through the cloud and from perching amidst soot-covered foliage. Soot found on the undersides of their flight feathers could only have been acquired by flying through the cloud itself, since these surfaces are concealed when a bird's wings are furled for perching.39
The climatological effects of the smoke produced reactions in the international community. In early February the British government began exploring ways to help Indian farmers cope with a possible crop failure brought about by smoke from the Kuwaiti oil fires disrupting the monsoon winds and cooling the climate.40 By contrast the response of many others was far more ignoble, preferring to take refuge in denial. The World Meteorological Organization told Thomas Sullivan not to publicize his models of possible monsoon disruptions by oil fire soot because of fears that people might misunderstand them and panic.41 However his findings were later borne out by the Bay of Bengal cyclone, which he analyzed to show a cause-and-effect link between it and the Kuwaiti oil fires.
On the whole the Persian Gulf War led to an increased awareness that activities in one area can have effects in areas seemingly far removed from them. The international community took action, even if in a halting and unco-ordinated fashion, to deal with the problems produced by the war. And along with the questions about the morality of the war as a military conflict (whether it was a greater wrong to use force to liberate Kuwait or to stand by and permit Iraq to continue to perpetrate atrocities), questions were raised about the environmental effects of the war. For the first time many people began to recognize that there are no easy answers and whatever action one takes there will be some ill effect. Perhaps this new awareness of the complexity of moral choices marks the beginning of a new maturity of human culture.
Canas, Michael E. "How Oil Markets Respond to Supply Disruption." in America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis and its Consequences. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. 1991.
Evons , Mike interview. "Impacts on Bird Populations." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Geyer, Alan and Barbara G. Green. Lines in the Sand: Justice and the Gulf War. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox. 1992.
Henderson, David R. "The Myth of Saddam's Oil Stranglehold." in America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis and its Consequences. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. 1991.
Heneman , Burr interview. "General Observations." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Hilder , Lara interview. "The Gag Order: Did the US Government Hide Facts about the Fires." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Hobbs, Peter V. "Testimony of the US Interagency Study Group on the Kuwait Oil Fires." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Kemp, Penny. "For Generations to Come: the Environmental Catastrophe." in Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader. New York: Olive Branch. 1991.
Maynes, Charles William. "Factors for War and Strategies for Peace." in America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis and its Consequences. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. 1991.
Miller, John M. "Chronology of a Coverup." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Niskonen, William A. "Oil, War and the Economy." in America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis and its Consequences. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. 1991.
…zkaynak, Halžk interview. "Oil Fires, Air Pollution and Regional Health Effects" in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Pain, Stephanie. "Is Kuwait's Foul Air Fit to Breathe?" New Scientist. V. 132. (October 26, 1991)
Paley, Grace. "Something About the Peace Movement: Something About the People's Right Not to Know." in The Gulf Between Us: The Gulf War and Beyond. London: Virago. 1991.
Pearce, Fred. "Indian Farmers Face the Smoke." New Scientist. V. 129 (February 2, 1991)
________. "Kuwait's Oil Wells Send Smoke to Iraq." New Scientist. V. 129 (March 2, 1991)
________. "Wildlife Choked by World's Worst Oil Slick." New Scientist V. 129 (February 2, 1991).
Pearce, Fred and Stephanie Pain. "Oil from Kuwaiti Wells Still Pouring into Desert." New Scientist. V. 132. (November 9, 1991)
Richman, Sheldon L. "Washington's Interventionist Record in the Middle East." in America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis and its Consequences. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. 1991.
Ross , James Perran interview. "Sea Turtles." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Sibbald, Ray. "The Gulf War and the Environment." in The Gulf War Assessed. London: Arms and Armour. 1992.
Sullivan, Thomas J. "The Downwind Impacts of the Oil Fires." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Tanzer, Michael. "Oil and the Gulf Crisis." in Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader. New York: Olive Branch. 1991.
Thomas, Richard K. "The Nature of Saddam's Threat." in America Entangled: The Persian Gulf Crisis and its Consequences. Washington, DC: Cato Institute. 1991.
Thorne-Miller, Boyce. "Possible Impacts of the Mina Al Ahmadi Spill."in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Vidal, John. "Poisoned Sand and Seas" in The Gulf Between Us: The Gulf War and Beyond. London: Virago. 1991.
Warner, James and Saul Bloom. "The Global Impacts of the Oil Fires: Six Questions." in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Winkler, Phillippa. "The 'Gulf War Syndrome.'" in Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health and Political Consequences of the Persian Gulf War. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic. 1994.
Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel
For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel
Originally written for a course in American Diplomatic History taught by Professor Grabill, Illinois State University.
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