Insurgents Blamed in Iraq Oil Fires

Times Staff Writer

Iraqi officials blamed loyalists of jailed former leader Saddam Hussein on Sunday 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 an already dire shortage of gasoline that has angered Iraqi drivers and fomented criticism that the U.S.-led coalition is mismanaging postwar reconstruction.

Coalition troops, meanwhile, continued raids through insurgent strongholds along the border with Syria and in the so-called Sunni Triangle that was Hussein’s power base, arresting hundreds of Iraqis accused of attacking U.S.-led forces. An Iraqi woman was killed in one of the raids and two others injured when troops used explosives to blow in the door of a house in Rawah, along the western border, coalition officials reported.

Billowing fireballs erupted from the pipeline in the Mashahidah area 15 miles northwest of Baghdad after insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades into the facility Saturday. Rebel artillery also was cited 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 worsen the nearly month-old 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. Iraqi and U.S. officials with the Coalition Provisional Authority have been insisting that the gas crisis will be resolved in a few days and that much of the problem results from consumer panic and hoarding.

Coalition troops have been detaining Iraqis selling gasoline for up to $1.85 a gallon -- about 50 times the pump price. The Oil Ministry instituted rationing on Thursday.

The sabotage of the oil infrastructure -- the 83rd incident of its kind since April, said Jihad -- capped a week in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces dropped significantly following Hussein’s Dec. 13 capture. One U.S. soldier was killed in the past week, compared with an average of six weekly 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 probably holed up this week due to widespread raids in the Sunni Triangle.

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

U.S. troops conducted house-to-house searches in Rawah, looking for foreign infiltrators who they believe are behind a recent spate of suicide bombings. The Iraqi woman’s death occurred during one of 17 raids staged by the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

During a visit to Damascus Sunday 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 Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the interim Iraqi leadership body.

Coalition forces also staged a predawn raid on Fallouja and arrested five people in the insurgent hotbed 30 miles west of here.

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

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

Sahaf earned the nickname Comical Ali for his inane characterization of the war. Among other outrageous statements, he proclaimed the defeat of U.S. forces even as American troops advanced into Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Hussein’s daughter, who has been living in Jordan, dispatched a 10-page letter to Baghdad for her jailed father, the daily Azzaman newspaper reported, citing details of the missive it obtained through intermediaries. It quoted Raghad Saddam Hussein as promising the former dictator that she would organize “a great defense team” for the war crimes trial both U.S. and Iraqi officials have said he will face, possibly by the middle of next year. She also expressed the desire to travel to Baghdad to visit her 66-year-old father if his U.S. jailers allow her to see him.