Baghdad, June 22 (Reuters): A grenade attack killed a US soldier in Iraq today as a pipeline fire blazed on after an overnight explosion described by an oil ministry official as sabotage.
The US military said a second soldier was wounded in the attack on a military convoy at Khan Azad, some 20 km south of Baghdad. The first was dead on arrival at hospital.
It was the latest in a spate of deadly assaults on US forces in which 19 soldiers have been killed since President George W. Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1.
Two US soldiers were wounded in the town of Hit, about 140 km north-west of Baghdad, yesterday afternoon when their vehicle ran over a landmine.
About an hour before midnight, a US patrol reported a fire at an Iraqi fuel pipeline in the desert near Hit. “This incident is an act of sabotage. The pipeline was blown up deliberately,” said an oil ministry official. He did not elaborate and asked not to be named.
A Reuters correspondent at the scene said orange fireballs and thick black smoke were billowing from the damaged pipeline near a metal pylon more than 12 hours after the blast. He said no US troops or Iraqi officials were on the spot and no attempt was being made to extinguish the blaze.
A US military spokesperson said earlier that efforts were under way to put out the fire. He had no word on its cause.
It was the second major fire to damage Iraqi pipelines this month. US officials blamed the first on gas leaking from the main export pipeline from the Kirkuk oilfields to Turkey. The pipeline at Hit, with a gas pipeline alongside it, was built in the 1980s to connect Iraq’s southern and northern oilfields, enabling exports to flow smoothly.
An oil ministry official said any disruption to the oil pipeline could hit Baghdad’s main refinery, forcing it to rely on crude from the south, where oil facilities are in bad shape. The refinery at al-Doura serves a city whose five million people have barely had time to forget the misery of petrol queues that snaked through sweltering streets for weeks after US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein on April 9.
Iraq, which exported around two million barrels per day before the US-led war, relaunched oil sales today from eight million barrels stored in Turkey. A Turkish tanker loaded a million barrels of oil bound for Turkish refineries from the Mediterranean terminal of Ceyhan.
De facto oil minister Thamir Ghadhban said yesterday it would take 18 months — and well over $1 billion — to restore pre-war production capacity of three million bpd.
Post-war looting and sabotage at oil facilities have delayed the resumption of Iraq’s oil exports and will keep shipments well below pre-war levels for several months, officials say. Iraqi oil pipelines and installations are spread over vast swathes of sparsely populated desert that is hard to patrol.
A week ago, US forces launched Operation Desert Scorpion in a fresh bid to find weapons and curb attacks on American troops, while wooing Iraqi civilians with aid projects.
They have also intensified the hunt for Saddam since seizing his top aide, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, on Monday. Mahmud is reported to have told his captors that the deposed ruler and his two sons had survived the war. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s US administrator, said yesterday the issue of Saddam’s fate needed to be resolved one way or another, as uncertainty emboldened his supporters.
Meanwhile, Baghdad airport, shut to regular commercial flights for 13 years under UN sanctions, should reopen by July 15, an official for the main US contractor rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure said today. Tom Elkins, the executive in charge of procurement for private contracting giant Bechtel, said Washington had put a “high priority” on reopening the airport.