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Pipeline blast cuts Iraq's oil experts; U.S. forces clash with militiamen
KARBALA, Iraq (AP) - Insurgents blasted an oil pipeline, setting off a huge blaze and slashing Iraq's daily oil exports by about 25 per cent. U.S. troops traded gunfire Monday with fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in this Shiite city south of Baghdad.
U.S. tanks and helicopters destroyed al-Sadr's headquarters in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City in weekend clashes. U.S. officials said 35 Iraqis were killed before fighting ended just before dawn Monday.
Elsewhere, U.S. marines entered the restive city of Fallujah on Monday for the first time since the bloody, three-week siege ended last month. The marines, accompanied by Iraqi forces, remained in the city for about an hour and left without incident.
U.S. officials hailed the move Fallujah as a sign that Fallujah was quiet after the Americans abandoned the siege and turned rebellious city over to former soldiers from Saddam Hussein's army.
"Fallujah residents won the battle with the American tyranny," said one resident who refused to give his name. "The American who have entered the city of Fallujah were humiliated and defeated with their guns downed in fear of Fallujah locals."
Three more American soldiers died over the weekend, the U.S. command reported Monday. They included a 1st Infantry Division soldier killed in a roadside bombing Saturday north of Baghdad, a Task Force Olympia soldier who died of wounds in northern Iraq and a Military Policeman who died when his Humvee collided with a tank Sunday near the capital.
In the south, firefighters were still battling a blaze which erupted Saturday after insurgents bombed a pipeline carrying oil for export to a terminal south of the southern city of Basra.
Jabber Luyaibi, director general of Iraq's Southern Oil Company, said engineers managed to divert oil to a second pipeline.
But an official for the State Oil Marketing Pipeline told Dow Jones Newswires that the alternative pipeline was too small to handle the additional flow and that as a result, Iraq's petroleum exports had fallen by 25 per cent to 1.2 million barrels a day.
Iraq has the world's second largest proven petroleum reserves after Saudi Arabia, and the country's return to world oil markets is the key to reviving the economy after decades of war and misrule by Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.
In London, Paul Horsnell, head of energy research at Barclays Capital, said the damage could be repaired quickly and that the disruption of exports would be temporary. But he said the attack was disturbing because "quite clearly, now the southern infrastructure is a target."
Southern Iraq, homeland of the country's Shiite Muslim community, had been relatively quiet compared with the turbulent central and north-central regions, where Sunni Muslim insurgents have been attacking American forces for months.
However, security in the south has deteriorated since U.S. and coalition forces launched a crackdown last month on al-Sadr, the young Shiite extremist, and his al-Mahdi Army militia. Al-Sadr is sought for his alleged role in the murder last year of a moderate, rival cleric in Najaf in April 2003.
Since the crackdown, al-Sadr's forces have clashed with U.S. and coalition troops in Najaf, where he sought refuge, as well as Basra, Karbala and other southern cities.
However, American soldiers have been measured in their moves against al-Sadr, fearing that an all-out assault could damage sacred religious shrines and inflame the Shiite majority, whose support Washington needs to establish a stable Iraqi government.
In Karbala, 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, U.S. tanks and armoured vehicles traded gunfire with al-Sadr's militiamen for about two hours Monday near the al-Mokhayam mosque, according to residents.
The skirmish tapered off by the afternoon, but the intermittent crackle of heavy machine-gun fire could be heard in the area, and al-Sadr's fighters remained outside the mosque. A doctor at Karbala's main hospital said three fighters were treated for injuries.
Elsewhere, apreviously unknown group warned foreigners Monday in Basra, the major city of southern Iraq, that they will be targeted for kidnapping and assassination. The message - directed specifically at Americans, Britons and Kuwaitis - was made in a videotape from the Al-Taff Martyrs Brigade broadcast by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network.
The statement was read by a masked man flanked by armed men, their faces also covered.