KIRKUK, Iraq -- Saboteurs wrecked a recently repaired pipeline junction yesterday and the fire set off a cascade of power blackouts that underlined the frustrations faced by US engineers trying to upgrade northern Iraq's creaky oil facilities in the face of relentless bombings.
The 3 a.m. attack blew up a junction where multiple oil pipelines cross the Tigris River at the northern city of Beiji. The burning oil melted power cables, causing a short that knocked power plants off line and cut off electricity across Iraq until late afternoon, officials said.
The breach also shut down the pipeline that sends crude oil from Kirkuk's huge oil field to an export terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey. With crude oil selling above $40 a barrel, sabotage has cost Iraq more than $2 billion, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said.
''If you build it they will come -- and try to blow it up," said Lieutenant Colonel Lee Morrison, a US Army Corps of Engineers officer who heads a Kirkuk-based oil security team. ''It's definitely one step forward, one step back. You fix it and it blows up."
Instead of being sold on the international market, oil burned on the desert and poured, still aflame, into the Tigris. Aerial photos showed flaming slicks of oil floating downstream while black smoke billowed into mammoth columns visible 25 miles away.
Officials at the state-run North Oil Co. said the flames were extinguished late yesterday.
Especially disheartening for Morrison, the sabotage came just two days after Northern Oil engineers completed a two-month replacement of critical valves destroyed by a previous bombing.
''They already know it's a critical point because they've blown it up before," Morrison said in frustration, sitting in an office with walls covered by pipeline maps, including one marked with several yellow circles denoting previous pipeline blasts.
Morrison, 44, of St. Petersburg, Fla., said US soldiers dropped off spools of concertina wire to block access to the repaired valves two days ago, but Iraqi authorities had not yet erected them.
Iraqi officials are struggling to protect the country's vast oil infrastructure in both the north and south against attacks by insurgents who are seeking to destabilize Allawi's interim government.
Morrison heads the Kirkuk office of Task Force Shield, which oversees a guard force of some 6,500 Iraqis who are supposed to take over protection of northern oil facilities when a $70 million contract with a British security firm, Erinys, expires Dec. 31.
Morrison said the Iraqi force is too small to protect the huge network of oil wells, pipelines, and plants.
Even without the bombings, Iraq's oil infrastructure is saddled with problems that prevent the country from reaping the full value of Kirkuk's oil, which accounts for 6 percent of the world's known reserves.
Run efficiently with modern equipment, the Kirkuk fields could yield 1.1 million barrels a day -- more than double current production, analysts estimate.