- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

BAGHDAD — Firefighters fought a massive oil pipeline fire in northern Iraq yesterday after insurgents detonated explosives in what authorities described as one of the worst sabotage attacks in the region since the U.S. occupation.

“It is the biggest sabotage operation on the oil installations in Kirkuk since the invasion,” said Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin of the Iraqi National Guard in Kirkuk.

The explosion Thursday on the line extending from fields southwest of Kirkuk to the oil refinery in Beiji sparked a blaze that sent aloft balls of fire and black smoke over the area. The fire continued to rage late yesterday.

In Kufa in southern Iraq, rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in a defiant speech read out to 2,000 supporters during the first Friday prayers since the end of a three-week standoff with American troops, declared that U.S. forces can never defeat his militia, known as Mahdi’s Army.

Officials at the state-run Northern Oil Co. decided to temporarily stop pumping oil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, fearing the fire could spread to the key pipeline running to the port, Gen. Amin said.

“The pumping to the Ceyhan port has stopped because of this act of sabotage,” he said.

Authorities fighting the blaze yesterday said it might take two days before engineers could fix the pipeline.

The pipeline running to Ceyhan is a major export route that has been beset with sabotage.

Iraq’s oil industry, which provides desperately needed money for Iraq’s reconstruction efforts, has been the target of repeated attacks by insurgents in recent months.

Light crude for October delivery fell 7 cents to settle at $43.99 in a shortened preholiday trading yesterday at the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In Kufa, al-Sadr aides said the cleric initially planned to deliver the sermon himself from a makeshift pulpit on the street outside the Kufa mosque, which was closed last week after militants pulled out under the cease-fire. But he abandoned the idea amid fears it could raise tension.

Iraqi security forces sealed off roads and fired warning shots near the city in an effort to keep the jostling crowds in check.

“Many, but not all, think that the American Army is invincible. But now it’s appeared only truth is invincible,” Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji said in a statement read on Sheik al-Sadr’s behalf. “America claims to control the world through globalization, but it couldn’t do the same with the Mahdi Army.”

Last week’s accord that ended three weeks of fighting between U.S. forces and al-Sadr militiamen in Kufa’s twin city of Najaf gave the interim government control of that city. It also disentangled U.S. forces from street fighting while allowing Sheik al-Sadr and his militants to walk away free — and keep their guns.

But Sheik al-Sadr portrayed the American withdrawal from Najaf’s devastated Old City as a sign of U.S. military weakness. “We should keep in mind the lessons of what happened in Najaf,” the cleric’s statement said.

The remarks appeared intended to rally Sheik al-Sadr’s forces. It was not clear whether they signaled a retreat from his commitment to talks between his envoys and the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to stop weeks of clashes in the militant stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling east Baghdad slum.

Despite the turnout at the Kufa mosque, dozens of protesters in Najaf chanted slogans denouncing the cleric and blaming him for the destruction. They also demanded Sheik al-Sadr and his fighters leave the holy city once and for all, fearful of further unrest.

In the sermon, Sheik al-Sadr also denounced the kidnapping of two French journalists as “inhumane” and added his voice to calls across the Muslim world for their immediate release.

“You should know that such actions are not part of the Iraqi resistance. They tarnish the image of the Iraqi resistance,” he said.

Hope grew that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot would be released after France’s foreign minister said he had proof the two were alive and one of their employers said they had been handed over to another, more moderate group.

In Baghdad, a spokesman for an influential Sunni clerical organization said the hostages’ lives were no longer threatened and it was only a matter of time before their release. Mr. Chesnot and Mr. Malbrunot were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.

Also yesterday, several shells hit a checkpoint of the Fallujah Brigade, a force initially created by the United States that has been patrolling the volatile city since April, security and hospital officials said. Four persons died and six were wounded.

Capt. Majid Ahmad Salim, the Fallujah Brigade’s commander in the southern part of the city, said the fire came from U.S. tanks outside the city. The U.S. military said they had no immediate information on the attack.

In Skopje, Macedonia, a government spokesman said three Macedonian contractors disappeared in Iraq 10 days ago, but Iraqi officials could not confirm the report.

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