An Iraqi oil pipeline was burning after being sabotaged as the country's crude was set to return to the world market, and despite an offensive by US-led forces against opponents of their occupation regime.
Fires blazed on the major pipeline from Iraq's northern oilfields after what residents said were twin bomb attacks aimed at sabotaging exports through Turkey.
An AFP correspondent saw two separate fires on the pipeline, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the key refinery town of Baiji, close to the main highway between Baghdad and the northern regional capital of Mosul.
U.S. soldiers stand next to a fire on the main oil pipeline from the Kirkuk oilfields in northern Iraq to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhun June 13, 2003. Turkey said on Friday investigations were under way to establish whether sabotage was to blame for a blast on the Iraqi section of a pipeline carrying oil to Turkey. REUTERS/Hurriyet
US military helicopters hovered overhead.
Local residents said the pipeline had been attacked by Iraqis using explosives around 8:45 pm (1645 GMT) Thursday, the same day Iraq awarded its first post-war oil export contracts.
"It's to stop the Americans taking the oil out to Turkey," said Khidr Aziz.
Less than an hour's drive north of Saddam Hussein's native city of Tikrit, the region around Baiji was considered a stronghold of his Sunni-dominated regime.
On Thursday, Iraq's US-led administration awarded a raft of contracts to international oil companies to lift crude, the first since the war which ousted Saddam in April.
A coalition spokesman said the contracts were for exports from the southern oilfields around Basra and the lifting of crude already in storage at the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Four European companies, a Turkish firm and the US company ChevronTexaco were awarded contracts to buy 9.5 million barrels of Iraqi oil, returning it to the international market after a three-month suspension, industry sources said.
Oil revenues are expected to play a major role in Iraq's economic restoration after decades of dictatorship and war.
But even as reconstruction plans advanced, a US Apache attack helicopter helicopter was shot down when US troops struck at what officials called a "terrorist training camp" in western Iraq early Thursday.
The helicopter's two crew members were rescued and no coalition troops were wounded or killed in the operation, the US Central Command said.
The assault came three days after elements of the 4th Infantry Division launched a massive sweep through areas north of Baghdad, capturing 400 suspected Saddam supporters and seizing arms and ammunition.
"Coalition forces in Iraq are aggressively seeking out individuals or groups that oppose our mission," ground forces chief Lieutenant General David McKiernan said.
But the US overseer of Iraq, Paul Bremer, said Thursday he has seen no evidence that ongoing attacks on US troops north and west of Baghdad are being orchestrated.
"These are groups that are organized, but they are small," he told Pentagon correspondents in Washington via a video link from Baghdad.
Bremer said resistance to US troops is coming from loyalists of Saddam's dissolved Baath party, former Fedayeen militiamen and some remnants of the elite Republican Guard still loyal to Saddam.
Earlier, in Mosul, several hundred former members of the Iraqi army demanding their pay tried to storm the government building and traded fire with police as US helicopters circled overhead, witnesses said.
A Kurdish official said initial reports indicated three demonstrators were killed, but there was no definitive casualty toll.
The administration of the multi-ethnic city of 1.5 million had refused to pay former members of Saddam's now-banned army, but did distribute April salaries to civil servants.
Bremer said US-led forces have now captured more than half of the individuals on the coalition's list of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam's former regime.
Bremer said his office is seeking advice from "responsible Iraqis" on how best to deal with them, and he signaled that this may involve some kind of criminal tribunal.
But Saddam and his two sons are still missing, as are his alleged weapons of mass destruction, which were cited as a primary cause for the war to overthrow him.
The Washington Post said Friday a covert, specialized US Army unit scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, even before the war, but has come up empty handed.
Task Force 20 "found no working nonconventional munitions, long-range missiles or missile parts, bulk stores of chemical or biological warfare agents or enrichment technology for the core of a nuclear weapon," said the daily.
But the force sent "a stream of initially promising reports" to a small group of Washington officials, which prompted US President George W. Bush and his senior security advisers to feel optimistic about the eventual discovery of illegal weapons in Iraq.
Bush's administration and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government have been seriously embarrassed by the failure to come up with any weapons of mass destruction or even proof that they existed.
As the violence continued, Washington welcomed Madrid's decision to contribute 1,100 troops to a division-size peacekeeping force, alongside 2,300 Poles and 1,700 Ukrainians.
Along with the Spanish contingent will be 840 military doctors, nurses and engineers from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, officials from those countries said.
On the political front, Kurdish media said the leaders of the two main US-allied Kurdish parties in northern Iraq Thursday endorsed a plan to reunify their administrations.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have each been running their own territory since 1996, when bloody clashes between the two factions peaked, precipitating the split.
The two groups have controlled Iraqi Kurdistan since the aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
© 2003 AFP