KIRKUK, Sept 3: All exports of Iraq’s Kirkuk crude oil through a major pipeline to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast were stopped on Saturday after a bomb blast set the pipeline on fire, an oil ministry source said.

The shutdown comes as global oil prices have been pushed near record highs following outages at US refineries damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The International Energy Agency has agreed to release strategic oil reserves to ease US product shortages, and a new supply outage in Iraq is likely to add to upward price pressure.

“The blast halted all exports, it stopped them completely,” the source said.

Although the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has a nominal capacity of close to 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd), throughput has typically averaged only around 200,000 bpd since the US invasion of March 2003 because of frequent attacks on the line. It has also been closed for long periods.

Iraq currently exports around 1.5 million bpd, well down from pre-war levels of around 2.2 million bpd, with most going through the south of the country for export through the Gulf. Iraq has the world’s third largest oil reserves.

The pipeline was hit by an explosion early on Saturday and caught fire for several hours, a guard on the pipeline said.

The pipeline runs from the major northern Iraqi oilfield of Kirkuk to Ceyhan. The explosion took place near Fatha, between Kirkuk and the city of Baiji.

Another guard said a roadside bomb had been placed beside the pipeline some four kilometres from Fatha, which is 95kms southwest of Kirkuk.

19 COPS SHOT DEAD: Unknown gunmen killed 19 Iraqi policemen and army soldiers in three separate attacks near Baquba, north of Baghdad, on Saturday.

The first attack came in the morning at an Iraqi army checkpoint when four soldiers died. Later, four police officers were killed by gunmen at a checkpoint in the centre of Baquba, 65kms north of Baghdad.

The third attack was on a checkpoint manned jointly by police and soldiers four kilometres south of Baquba, in which seven policemen and two soldiers were shot dead. —Reuters

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