BAGHDAD, Iraq - Two days after Iraq began exporting oil from its northern oil fields, an explosion caused by saboteurs has crippled the country's key pipeline into Turkey, Iraqi officials said yesterday.
The blast in an isolated field near the town of Baji ripped through a piece of pipeline buried three feet underground early Friday and ignited a fire that was contained only yesterday afternoon, acting Iraqi Oil Minister Thamer al-Ghadhban said in a news conference.
Iraq's top law enforcement official, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Ibrahim, said the explosion was the work of "hopeless conspirators" and called on tribes in the region to provide information about the culprits.
"The damage that occurred is damage to all Iraqis," said Ibrahim, who vowed to arrest the attackers.
Iraq's oil exports are crucial to postwar reconstruction. The U.S.-led coalition had focused on restoring the northern export pipeline to generate much-needed revenue. But the export program has been hurt by repeated acts of sabotage on the pipeline and storage facilities.
Iraq began exporting oil from its southern fields last month. Iraq's northern oil fields resumed production after the war but began exporting crude oil to Turkey only on Wednesday. Iraq has the world's second-largest crude reserves; northern Iraq accounts for 40 percent of the country's production.
U.S. Army officials said earlier yesterday that the pipeline had been shut down because of badly needed repairs. Some sections of the line, neglected during the final years of Saddam Hussein's rule, had been unable to handle the flow, the chief Army engineer for the 4th Infantry Division told Reuters.
"There was nothing going through the pipeline right now because repairs were needed after it reopened," Col. Robert Nicholson said.
But Iraqi officials later said that the pipeline was disabled by the explosion, which they said occurred in a hilly region 125 miles north of Baghdad about 3 a.m. Friday.
Millions of dollars a day are being lost because of the shutdown of the 600-mile pipeline, which runs from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk to the Turkish city of Ceyhan, al-Ghadhban said. The repairs could take five days to a week, he said.
Al-Ghadhban said yesterday that sabotage was the only explanation for the disruption, and he lamented the lack of security that allowed such attacks to occur.
"In the past and in the past regime, we used to have oil police, army and the cooperation of tribes and internal security [guarding the pipeline]," he said. "Now this has all disappeared."
Al-Ghadhban would not respond to more specific questions about security provided by coalition forces. He also rebuffed questions about whether he had asked the coalition for better pipeline protection.
"No comment," he said when asked about the coalition's attempt to secure the pipeline.
But in his 30-year career at the Oil Ministry, he said, oil production protection "was never like this." The coalition is in charge of overseeing production and ensuring security, he said.
Asked about the level of sabotage throughout Iraq's oil facilities, al-Ghadhban shied from addressing the viability of production as attacks continue or whether officials should wait to reopen the pipeline. "It's a consideration," he said of a delay in reopening the line.
In other developments, a U.S. soldier was wounded by shrapnel yesterday when a patrol was ambushed by attackers who detonated a roadside bomb and fired rocket-propelled grenades near Baqouba, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, military officials said.
"We engaged them with our own automatic weapons and called in helicopter support," Capt. Jon Casey of the 4th Infantry Division, who was on the patrol, told the Associated Press. "We had no further contact and secured the area."
Also yesterday, soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division detained five people in raids across northern Iraq. Three were suspected regime loyalists, and one was a man who allegedly threatened to kill a U.S. soldier, Lt. Col. Bill MacDonald told the AP.
The division also announced the detention of Said Ali al-Karim, a Baqouba cleric known as "the prophet" who had urged violence against Americans.
Al-Karim, who was described as "a counselor to Saddam Hussein," was arrested Monday and could be charged with inciting violence, funding attacks and possessing illegal weapons.
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