A mortar attack set ablaze a major petroleum facility in the northern city of Kirkuk on Thursday, stopping refining at the plant and further damaging Iraq’s beleaguered oil industry.
Iraqi oil workers were still fighting the fire late Thursday, and U.S. officials held high-level meetings in Baghdad to assess the damage. An Iraqi executive with the North Oil Co. called the incident the “most severe attack we have ever faced on an oil installation.” The mortar rounds also hit an important pipeline to Turkey that was already out of commission and was being repaired, the executive said.
The cessation of production forced the shutdown of an electricity plant that ran on petroleum supplied by the refinery.
U.S. officials said they had not yet determined how severely the attack would hamper oil production in Iraq, which fell 8% last year to half the 3 million barrels a day envisaged by American officials at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Violence swept through the nation Thursday, taking the lives of at least 26 Iraqis. The U.S. military also announced the deaths of seven American servicemen since Wednesday.
In Shiite Muslim-dominated east Baghdad, car bombs detonated at a gas station and a popular market, sending up towers of fire that killed 16 people and injured 90.
The explosions followed a predawn U.S. helicopter attack in Sadr City, a large Baghdad slum named for the slain father of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Residents said an Iraqi woman was killed and a 2-year-old injured in that assault, which killed four gunmen who allegedly had fired on U.S. helicopters.
The choppers were supporting a raid to capture a suspected member of Ansar al Sunna, a Sunni Muslim-led militant group that has, on occasion, coordinated its activities with Al Qaeda, said Capt. Bill Roberts, a U.S. military spokesman.
After detaining two Iraqi suspects, U.S. troops attempted to withdraw by helicopter but were fired at by four gunmen on a nearby rooftop, Roberts said. Residents said the men were members of Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia, which had clashed with U.S. forces in the past. A U.S. Army attack helicopter then swooped down with machine guns and rockets blazing, Roberts said.
At least one house was completely destroyed. Photos taken by Associated Press showed a deep hole where a rocket had punched through a stone house. Several other residences and cars were also badly damaged.
Roberts said the military had no way of verifying whether civilians were killed in the attack.
Military officials on Thursday also announced the deaths of seven servicemen. A Marine and a soldier were killed Wednesday in gunfights near the city of Fallouja and in southwest Baghdad, respectively. A roadside bomb killed three soldiers Wednesday south of Baghdad.
Two more U.S. servicemen were killed Thursday by snipers in the western city of Ramadi.
The deaths brought to at least 2,249 the American military death toll in the Iraq theater since the invasion.
In another incident Thursday in Ramadi, a joint U.S.-Iraqi unit exchanged gunfire with insurgents for more than an hour. At least one bystander, tribal sheik Nawaf Shahata, was killed.
An Iraqi police source also reported that a Western private security detail opened fire on a minibus, killing two Iraqis and injuring seven.
In the northern city of Mosul, an improvised bomb planted under a traffic stand killed an Iraqi policeman and injured three. After a 20-minute gunfight in the city’s outskirts, another Iraqi policeman lay dead and five other officers were wounded.
And 14 corpses were found in a mass grave in north Baghdad, not far from the scene of a recent massacre of 60 would-be police recruits.
Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed and special correspondents in Baghdad, Fallouja, Kirkuk and Mosul contributed to this report.