Wednesday, June 16, 2004

BAGHDAD — The director of Iraq’s northern oil fields was assassinated outside his Kirkuk home yesterday, a day after two insurgent attacks in the southern oil fields shut down Iraq’s export of crude oil.

Ghazi Talabani, 70, was fatally shot yesterday morning, the third attack this week on a senior official of the new Iraqi government.

Mr. Talabani was a cousin of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.

The saboteurs also blasted a major pipeline to halt vital oil exports.

Meanwhile, a rocket slammed into a U.S. logistics base near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, killing three U.S. soldiers and wounding 25 others, the military said.

Elsewhere, radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militiamen to leave the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa unless they live there, fulfilling a key aspect of an accord meant to end fighting between his fighters and U.S. troops.

Kirkuk, the prize of northern Iraq because of its oil wealth, has been the source of bickering between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs over who should control it.

Oil prices spiked briefly upon news of Mr. Talabani’s assassination, only 14 days before the U.S.-led coalition transfers authority back to the Iraqi people.

Iraq’s oil exports are its financial lifeline and are expected to pay for the reconstruction and modernization of the country.

Oil experts said repairs to the southern pipeline could take as long as 10 days and cost the industry as much as $60 million a day in lost revenues.

But just as important, it will be impossible for the new government to win credibility with skeptical Iraqis if it cannot get the oil industry functioning.

Constant strikes by saboteurs have rendered the main pipeline from the northern fields, connecting Kirkuk to Turkey, largely inoperable in the past year.

But even before that, the outdated and poorly maintained oil infrastructure did not permit optimum production.

Officials said last year that their target would be the export of 2 million barrels of oil a day by the time the coalition departs. Although exports met that goal in March and April, production has fallen sharply since then as a result of attacks.

Coalition authorities say it is nearly impossible to patrol Iraq’s sprawling network of pipelines, which run from Ceyhan, Turkey, to Saudi Arabia, and from Syria to Basra in the south. Much of this crosses barren and inhospitable land.

In the past few months, the Iraqi Interior Ministry has hired or rehired 74,000 civilian guards charged with protecting sensitive sites ranging from mosques to museums. About 15,000 of them are assigned to refineries and pipelines.

Political experts have long warned that it will be vital to maintain peace and security in the region once the Americans leave.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government announced last week that it will send 3,000 troops to northern Iraq, deploying in stages between now and August.

An additional 650 South Korean engineers and medics who have been stationed in Nasiriyah will join them in Erbil to make up the third largest contingent of the multinational force after the United States and Britain.

However, diplomats say Seoul has won U.S. assurances that the troops will be deployed far from borders and potentially hostile areas, presumably including Kirkuk.

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