Saboteurs continue to blast Iraqi oil, natural gas pipelines

Eric Watkins
NICOSIA, June 23 -- Even as Iraq began loading its first oil for export in 3 months on Sunday, saboteurs blasted an Iraqi natural gas pipeline at Hit on Sunday and another oil pipeline early Monday near the border with Syria, raising more doubts about US-led efforts to get the country's petroleum industry back to full operation.

"People are questioning if Iraq can sustain exports in the foreseeable future unless the security situation improves dramatically," said Steve Turner of investment bank Commerzbank. "The explosions illustrate the problems of maintaining security on very long pipelines."

The 880 km Syrian pipeline is Iraq's second largest cross-border export link after the 965 km Kirkuk-Ceyhan line. The US stopped 200,000 b/d of oil from transiting the Syrian pipeline after bombing a pumping station during its invasion of Iraq in April.

While US officials Monday said the blast along the Syria line was still under investigation, Iraqi oil officials had no doubt about the blast at Hit. "The incident is an act of sabotage. The pipeline was blown up deliberately," said an Iraqi oil ministry official.

The director general of Northern Oil Co. (NOC), Adel al-Qazzaz, said the pipeline belonged to the Basra Gas Co. based in southern Iraq. "It carries gas from Basra to the northern part of the country," Qazzaz said.

The head of Baghdad's main refinery said the blast would hurt already erratic power production at the capital city's main power plant. "It will affect electricity generation directly. People are already living in hell and it's only going to get worse," said Dathar al-Qassab.

Blasts continue
The blasts are the third on key pipelines this month, following explosions on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline on June 12. US officials, who initially blamed those explosions on a gas leak, now say they were caused by sabotage.

"I think most of what we're seeing in the attacks against the infrastructure are acts of political sabotage. I don't think there's any question," said chief US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer over the weekend.

"We do have, clearly, difficulties still in securing the power and oil industry against political sabotage," Bremer said. "It's a difficult job. . .and we are trying to take steps."

On Sunday, some 1 million bbl of Iraqi oil were loaded at Ceyhan, the first since Mar. 20, the day before the outbreak of US-led war on Iraq. Officials hoped to clear 8 million bbl of oil stored at Ceyhan to make room for new supplies to be pumped along the pipeline from Kirkuk.

But the attack on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has forced NOC to delay the resumption of oil flows due to damage inflicted by the blast 10 days ago. "We are ready to pump but repairs to the pipeline will take another 3-4 days," said NOC's Al-Qazzaz.

Before the war, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline transported about 1 million b/d for export under the United Nations-controlled oil-for-aid program. The pipeline stopped pumping on Apr. 10 during the US-led war in Iraq and has been shut ever since.

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