Updated at 1:30 a.m. ET
BASRA, Iraq -- Three bombs hit an oil pipeline in southern Iraq on Tuesday, just as the general in charge of Iraq's 40,000 energy protection troops said patrols had been stepped up due to concerns of an al-Qaida surge ahead of the U.S. pullout on Dec. 31.
The blasts hit a pipeline that transports crude from Iraq's southern oilfields to storage tanks around the oil hub of Basra.
"The fire was put out at 7 a.m. A network of pipelines was damaged," the oil official told Reuters.
Iraq asked international oil companies working in its southern oilfields to reduce production after the Tuesday bomb attack, an industry source said on Wednesday.
It was not immediately clear if the request to reduce oil production was taken as a precautionary measure or was due to damage to the pipelines, the source said.
In Iraq's oil rich southern region, the United States is building a massive consulate in Basra. The consulate is situated just miles from Iraq's border with Iran. One security officer says it's like building a consulate on Omaha Beach. Some of the 1,320 people who work there call it "Fort Apache." If Iranian backed militias were to launch a full scale attack on this consulate, would the U.S. military ride to the rescue? Ted Koppel reports.
"The explosions happened in succession and caused an enormous fire," one source at the scene said. "We cannot go near the explosion site because the fire is still raging ... we fear the fire might extend to other nearby oil pipelines."
The source said the oil police were checking other pipelines for more bombs.
An oil official in Basra confirmed the blast was caused by a bomb attack.
In early June, militants blew up a storage tank at the Zubair 1 storage facility, despite tight security.
Basra, which handles the bulk of Iraq's oil exports, has generally seen fewer attacks this year than other cities in the country following an overall decline in levels of violence since the peak of sectarian conflict in Iraq in 2006-07.
Atef Hassan / Reuters
An Iraqi policeman stands guard near oil that leaked from a pipepline bombed a day earlier, on Oct. 7, in the Rumaila oilfield near Basra.
In October, two bombs hit pipeline networks transporting crude from Iraq's Rumaila oilfield, the country's biggest, cutting output from the field to 530,000 barrels per day from about 1.24 million bpd.
Multibillion-dollar deals Baghdad signed with energy majors could quadruple oil output capacity to Saudi levels within six years, but that depends on the OPEC member securing oilfields, refineries and other vital infrastructure.
Maj. Gen. Hamid Ibrahim, head of Iraq's energy protection force, said half of all attacks planned by al-Qaida targeted the country's oil sector. His force has so far managed to foil most attempts, he said.
"There is direct targeting of the oil sector ... By the start of the withdrawal there will be attacks not just on oil, but they (insurgents) will try to rattle the situation in the country," he told Reuters. "We are ready and on alert".
Although Iraq took responsibility for the security of its oil sector in 2005, the United States has still been providing aerial surveillance and other support to battle Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia, who have plagued the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
But by the end of December -- nearly nine years after the U.S.-led invasion -- only a small contingent of civilian trainers and fewer than 200 U.S. military personnel will remain.
The Iraq-Turkey pipeline in the north, which carries around a quarter of Iraq's oil exports, is regularly hit by sabotage, usually blamed on al-Qaida and former members of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath party.
Ibrahim said Iraqi security forces had foiled more than four plots against the nearby southern Doura refinery and were now coordinating with the Iraqi air force to monitor oil sites and pipelines.
The poorly equipped force has also received Hummer military vehicles and other supplies from U.S. forces as they pack up, he said.
"We used to dream of having a few cars to reinforce our forces, now we have thousands," he said. "Now we have good equipment, guns and bullets. It is a positive thing."
The government has built blast walls and watch towers and installed cameras and is talking to foreign investors such as British oil major BP to train the force, he said.
But Ibrahim added that his 40,000-strong force was still stretched, especially in the vast west of the country.
"We have shortages and we can't say we are self-sufficient ... The worry that we have now is that some oilfields in the western parts are vast fields," he said.
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