Attack cripples Iraq's largest refinery, kills 1

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The Associated Press
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 4:02 PM

BAGHDAD -- Gunmen stormed Iraq's largest oil refinery and bombed the facility Saturday, forcing operations to shut down at a time when Iraqis are already suffering through electricity shortages and lines at the gas pump.

The attack north of Baghdad casts doubt on the Iraqi government's ability to protect its vital infrastructure and could shake already nervous international investors. If not fixed swiftly, the shutdown will likely further fuel anger over a lack of public services that led to violent nationwide protests last week.

"It probably couldn't have come at a worse time for (Prime Minister) al-Maliki and his government," said Raad Al-Kadiri, an energy analyst with the Washington-based PXE Energy.

The Beiji oil refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity - all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things like gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations.

One of the key demands during protests Friday in which at least 14 people were killed was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government improve the country's electricity output - some Iraqis get only a few hours a day.

A lengthy outage would force Iraq, already grappling with a $13 billion budget deficit, to purchase more refined products on the open market. Analysts said storage facilities in Dora and Basra will be able to compensate for at least some of the immediate shortfall in production.

The sophisticated attack against the Beiji facility, located about 155 miles (250 kilometers) north of Baghdad in the heart of what used to be an al-Qaida infested area, was carried out in the dead of night.

Assailants carrying pistols fitted with silencers attacked the guards at about 3:30 a.m. and planted bombs near some benzene and kerosene production units, said the spokesman for Salahuddin province, Mohammed al-Asi.

One guard was shot dead and another wounded, al-Asi said. Smoke could be seen billowing from fields around the sprawling facility where fires raged for hours.

Dr. Abdul Jabbar al-Halfi, a professor at Basra University's oil engineering department and frequent visitor to the Beiji refinery, pointed out that visitors to Beiji need a special badge to even get within a mile (2 kilometers) of the facility and suggested it might have been an inside job.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, although insurgents have targeted oil facilities in the past.

The attackers knocked out the installation's North Refinery, which handles about 150,000 barrels a day; the refinery's other section, called the Salahuddin Refinery, is under renovation and was not affected.

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© 2011 The Associated Press

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