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Attacks Halt S. Iraq Oil Flow

Oil exports from southern Iraq have been brought to a complete halt, a senior oil official said Monday, following a spate of pipeline attacks launched by insurgents trying to undermine the volatile nation's interim government.

In Baghdad, military officials and representatives of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held talks Sunday aimed at reducing violence in the restive Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Clashes there killed 10 people on Saturday, officials said.

Oil flows out of the southern pipelines — which account for 90 percent of Iraq's exports — ceased late Sunday and were not likely to resume for at least a week, an official from South Oil Co. said on condition of anonymity.

"Oil exports from the port of Basra have completely stopped since last night," the official said Monday.

In other recent developments:

  • France's foreign minister appealed Monday for the release of two French journalists abducted in Baghdad, saying he was in the Middle East to explain that his nation respects all religions and that he was not ruling out a trip to the Iraqi capital. Michel Barnier's arrival in Cairo came shortly after a French government spokesman rejected a demand by the kidnappers to revoke a law banning Muslim head scarves in public schools by late Monday in order to free the men.
  • A military hearing set to resume Monday at Fort Bragg is to determine whether Pfc. Lynndie England, 21, should face a court-martial on 13 counts of abusing detainees in Iraq, and six counts stemming from possession of sexually explicit photos not involving detainees.
  • In Baghdad, insurgents fired three mortar rounds into an eastern neighborhood early Monday but there were no immediate reports of casualties, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman.
  • North of the capital, unidentified gunmen shot and seriously wounded a woman working as a translator for the U.S. military in the city, her husband, Amer Abdul-Karim said.
  • Near the northern city of Mosul early Sunday, insurgents holed up in a mosque attacked U.S. patrols with rocket-propelled grenades twice in three hours, said Army Capt. Angela Bowman. The violence occurred just outside Tal Afar, 30 miles west of Mosul. Soldiers returned fire during both assaults, killing two of the attackers, she said. No U.S. casualties were reported.

    A halt in southern oil exports costs Iraq about $60 million a day in lost income at current global crude prices, said Walid Khadduri, an oil expert who is chief editor of the Cyprus-based Middle East Economic Survey.

    Insurgents have launched repeated attacks on Iraq's oil infrastructure in a bid to undermine the interim government and reconstruction efforts.

    The latest strikes against five pipelines linked to the southern Rumeila oil fields immediately shut down the Zubayr 1 pumping station, forcing officials to use reserves from storage tanks to keep exports flowing for several hours. The reserves ran out late Sunday, the South Oil Co. official said.

    Before Sunday's attack, Iraq's exports from the south were about 600,000 barrels a day — a third the normal average of 1.8 million barrels a day due to a separate string of attacks early last week. The pipelines were still ablaze Monday, the official said.

    Saboteurs last brought southern oil exports to a halt in June.

    Sunday's talks in Sadr City failed to bring a peace agreement, with al-Sadr's aides demanding a U.S. pullout from the neighborhood, a condition U.S. officials rejected.

    British forces in the southern city of Basra, also the site of recent fighting, held similar talks Sunday with al-Sadr officials there.

    Both areas had erupted in violence after U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militants began fighting in the holy city of Najaf three weeks ago, and the talks Sunday appeared to be an effort by both sides to expand on the peace deal that ended the Najaf crisis Friday.

    Though peace descended on Najaf on Friday, skirmishes continued Saturday in Baghdad, with militants firing mortars and automatic weapons at U.S. troops and tanks in the impoverished neighborhood.

    In response, al-Sadr representatives, tribal leaders, Shiite politicians, government officials and U.S. military officers met to discuss the violence.

    The head of the tribal negotiating team, Naim al-Bakhati, told reporters that all sides — including al-Sadr representatives — had agreed that damaged areas there be rebuilt, U.S. troops withdraw from the area except for their normal patrols and that Iraqi police be allowed to enter the slum.

    But "there was no agreement on the Mahdi Army handing over their weapons," al-Bakhati said.

    Sadr City police chief Col. Maarouf Moussa Omran said all sides agreed to observe a one-day truce until Monday morning to give the Iraqi government time to discuss the results of the meeting.

    But Lt. Col. Jim Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, said "there has been no agreement of any kind," adding that the talks were not negotiations.

    Sadr City remained relatively peaceful Sunday. Fighting Saturday in the slum killed 10 people and wounded 126, said Saad al-Amili, a Health Ministry official.

    In Basra, a British commander held talks with al-Sadr's top representative in the city, Sheik Asaad al-Basri, and the pro-al-Sadr deputy governor, Salam al-Maliki.

    British Maj. Charlie Mayo, a coalition spokesman in Basra, described the meeting as a routine "interaction between the local British commanders and respected tribal leaders."

    Before the talks started, al-Basri told The Associated Press that "we want to avoid bloodshed but we have conditions that we will put forward to the British" including an amnesty for Mahdi Army members and compensation for victims of recent clashes.

    Al-Basri also said he wanted British forces to keep out of the city

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