Hussein loyalists blamed in attacks on oil pipeline

Acts of sabotage worsen serious gasoline shortage

December 22, 2003|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi officials blamed loyalists of jailed former leader Saddam Hussein yesterday for sabotaging a vital stretch of oil pipeline and blowing up a huge gasoline storage tank in Baghdad.

The attacks that set the north-south oil pipeline ablaze in at least four places threatened to worsen a dire gasoline shortage that has angered Iraqi drivers and fomented criticism that the U.S.-led coalition is mismanaging postwar reconstruction.

Coalition troops continued raids yesterday through insurgent strongholds along the border with Syria and in the Sunni Triangle, arresting hundreds of Iraqis accused of attacking U.S.-led forces. An Iraqi woman was killed in one of the raids and two other people were injured, coalition officials reported.

Billowing fireballs erupted from the pipeline in the al-Mashahda area 15 miles north of Baghdad after insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades into the facility Saturday. Rebel artillery also was identified as the cause of a gasoline tanker explosion later in the day in a southern area of the capital that sent 2.6 million gallons of gasoline up in flames.

Oil Ministry spokesman Assim Jihad said the fires resulted from "acts of sabotage," but denied that the lost fuel and pipeline disruptions would seriously worsen the nearly monthlong gas crisis that has motorists lined up for as long as 12 hours to fill their tanks.

Iraq can import more gasoline to make up for the losses, Jihad said. Coalition troops have been detaining Iraqis selling gasoline for as much as $1.85 a gallon - about 50 times the pump price. The Oil Ministry instituted rationing Thursday.

Sabotage of the oil infrastructure - the 83rd act of its kind since April, according to Jihad - capped a week in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces dropped significantly after Hussein was captured Dec. 13. One U.S. soldier was killed in the past week, compared with an average of six a week since President Bush declared the end of major combat May 1.

Military officials of the coalition have warned that troops must remain vigilant as the threat of attacks remains high and insurgents are likely holed up this week by widespread raids in the Sunni Triangle.

Iraqi and U.S. officials also have warned of the likelihood of insurgent provocations over Christmas.

Coalition forces also staged a predawn raid on Fallujah and arrested five people.

In Samarra, a third day of raids brought the number of detainees to 111, including 15 identified as opponents of the coalition.

During a visit to Damascus yesterday by members of the Iraqi Governing Council, Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated that his country was prepared to sign an agreement with Baghdad to improve security along the border and prevent terrorists from crossing into Iraq.

"There must be cooperation in order to stop operations and prevent illegal infiltrators from crossing," said Abdulaziz al-Hakim, head of the interim Iraqi leadership body.

Members of the Iraqi Governing Council also said they had urged the United Arab Emirates to extradite Hussein's former information minister. Council member Sondul Chapouk told journalists here that Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who was not on the U.S. military's list of 55 most-wanted figures of the former regime, was wanted on charges that he caused unnecessary civilian deaths by misleading the public about war risks.

Sahaf earned the nicknames "Baghdad Bob" and "Comical Ali" for his inane characterizations of the war. Among other outrageous statements, he proclaimed the defeat of coalition forces even as U.S. troops advanced into Baghdad.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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