KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) - Saboteurs blew up a junction where multiple oil pipelines cross the Tigris River in northern Iraq on Tuesday, setting off a chain reaction in power generation systems that left the entire country without power, officials said.
Firefighters struggled to put out the blaze after the attack near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad. Crude oil cascaded down the hillside into the river. Fire burned atop the water, fueled by the gushing oil.
In Vienna, Iraqi Oil Minister Thamer al-Ghadhban said the country would try to keep up its production of more than 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, 2 million of which is exported daily, but he didn't say how.
"I'm confident security will be improved," al-Ghadhban said ahead of an OPEC meeting here Wednesday.
Beiji is the point where several oil pipelines converge, said Lt. Col. Lee Morrison of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
One of them apparently was a domestic pipeline that fed a local power plant. The explosion set off a fire that melted cables and led to the power outage, electricity officials said.
"Beiji is the chokepoint," Morrison said. "It's so easy to hit."
The 3 a.m. attack came soon after engineers had completed a two-month project to install two critical valves that had been damaged in an earlier blast.
Morrison, commander of the northern office of Task Force Shield, based in Kirkuk, said U.S. soldiers dropped off barriers to guard the lines two days ago, but Iraqi authorities had not yet erected them.
Iraqi officials have been struggling to protect the country's vast oil infrastructure, deploying thousands of security officers to guard the lines. Insurgents, however, have largely acted with impunity - and often inside knowledge.
"They already know it's a critical point because they've blown it up before," said Morrison, of St. Petersburg, Fla. "They obviously know the system. But it's not rocket science."
Militants waging a 16-month insurgency have attacked oil pipelines and other infrastructure as part of a campaign to destabilize the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and drive coalition forces from the country.
Allawi told the Arabic-language satellite channel Al-Arabiya on Monday that sabotage of oil pipelines had already cost the country about $2 billion in losses, with oil prices near record highs.
Minister of Electricity Ayham al-Samarie said his technicians and engineers have been working to restore power for hours and 30 percent of the work has been done.
"This made the Beiji Electricity station stop for technical reasons making the whole electricity system (in Iraq) stop," al-Samarie said in a statement.
"Power will be back in the coming hours," he said.
In a separate development, fire erupted in oil valves that were undergoing repair work from an earlier attack in the town of Riyadh, about 40 miles southwest of Kirkuk, said an official with the state-run North Oil Co.
The attack last month on the valves had already disrupted the main 40-inch pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
On Monday, the oil official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 75 percent of the repair work on the valves had been completed and that they were hoping to reopen them soon.
It was not immediately clear what caused Tuesday's fire, or whether it would delay the valves' reopening.
Despite the shutdown, officials have been able to keep northern oil exports flowing, albeit at a reduced level, by resorting to a network of substitute pipelines.