2 pipelines ablaze as Iraq fighting rages on

Posted in Iraq | 10-Jun-04 | Author: Edward Wong| Source: The New York Times

BAGHDAD Insurgents staged attacks Wednesday on coalition forces on several fronts, firing mortars at an Iraqi militia west of here, setting two critical oil pipelines in the north ablaze and ambushing a military convoy in the capital. In the southern holy city of Najaf, fighters loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric, tried to seize a police station Tuesday night despite a declared cease-fire. On Wednesday, the cleric’s militia, the Mahdi Army, still controlled the holiest Shiite site in Iraq, the golden-domed Shrine of Ali. An aide to Sadr insisted that officials linked to the militia will have the right to take part in future elections despite a recent order from the U.S. administration saying otherwise. The various assaults underscored the fact that the United States is still engaged in a wide-ranging war in Iraq, one that American officials say will likely get worse as the White House tries to hand some sovereignty over to the country by June 30. The United Nations Security Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that recognized the sovereign status of Iraq after June 30. Whether the approval will dampen the resolve of the insurgents is one of the biggest questions confronting Iraqis and Americans. With the spate of attacks on Wednesday, the insurgents gave the impression that they were determined to carry on fighting for the moment. The attacks on the pipelines came after an assault on fuel and transmission lines that forced the shutdown last weekend of a large power plant south of Baghdad. The continuing sabotage of infrastructure shows that fighters are cannily picking targets that deliver basic needs and whose destruction can erode Iraqi confidence in the occupation and the new government. An occupation spokesman said that one of the pipeline explosions resulted in a temporary power decline from an electricity plant in the northern town of Bayji.

An attack on Iraqi forces took place around the volatile town of Falluja, about 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, west of Baghdad. Insurgents lobbed mortars at a camp housing members of the Falluja Brigade, which was created by the marines in late April to pacify the anti-American city. The attack wounded a member of the brigade, said Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for the occupation forces.

The 2,000-member brigade is itself composed partly of guerrillas who were fighting the marines and is led by General Muhammad Latif, a former Baath Party member who fell out of favor with Saddam Hussein. The attack on the brigade highlighted the complex fractures among various insurgent groups in the Falluja area, which has essentially become a safe haven for anti-American forces since the marines relinquished control. Foreign civilians still are shot at and taken hostage in the area, while marines are killed by roadside bombs. The marines appeared to be conducting an operation around Falluja on Wednesday, using concrete barriers to block two roads leading to the city from Baghdad. Tanks, Humvees and other armored vehicles were seen parked or driving around farm pastures alongside the main highway right outside Falluja. A wooden sign said in Arabic: ‘‘No entry into the city.’’ In Najaf, about 190 kilometers south of Baghdad, many members of the Mahdi Army appeared to have hidden their weapons to comply with a cease-fire announced on June 4 by the governor of the region. The police were patrolling parts of Najaf and the adjoining city of Kufa, where Sadr’s support is strongest. But militiamen still maintained a perimeter around the Shrine of Ali, dedicated to the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Ahmad Shaibani, an aide to Sadr, said in an interview that it was not the right of the occupation forces or the Iraqi police to decide who will control the shrines, noting that Sadr will answer only to the most senior ayatollahs on the issue. ‘‘Holy shrines were excluded from the agreement,’’ he said. Shaibani also said that L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, had no power to bar any Iraqi from participating in the coming general elections. Earlier this week Bremer signed an order saying members or leaders of illegal militias will not be allowed to seek office, presumably preventing Sadr from campaigning. Bremer ‘‘has no right to determine the nature of the elections and whether militias have the right to participate or not, especially since his authority will end as per the UN Security Council resolution,’’ Shaibani said.

The New York Times Jim Glanz contributed reporting from Baghdad and Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Falluja and Najaf.