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UN to release key Iraq report
Updated: 2004-02-23 14:49

An oil pipeline was sabotaged in southern Iraq while deadly violence flared in the north, as the war-torn country awaited the release Monday of the UN's findings on the best way forward.

A series of explosions were heard in the vicinity of Baghdad airport late Sunday but the cause was not immediately known, said a US airforce spokeswoman at the facility used as a military base.

As the debate over Iraq's future rages amid fears of a civil war, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned on his way to the Gulf that Al-Qaeda was sowing seeds of destruction in Iraq.

In the first attack of its kind in the south since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring, an oil pipeline was targeted near Karbala, 110 kilometres (70 miles) from Baghdad, an official Iraqi source said.

"An explosion damaged the pipeline and we don't know who the saboteurs are," said local Karbala official Hamid Salah al-Shebib.

The blast on the Kirkuk-Baghdad-Basra pipeline set off a fire around the site of the attack, and thick black smoke could be seen billowing from kilometres (miles) around.

Saboteurs have frequently targeted oil pipelines in oil-rich northern Iraq, where a gunbattle on Saturday night left one Iraqi dead and another seriously wounded when they attacked the home of a police chief, a police officer said.

An Iraqi civilian was also killed Sunday morning in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul by a makeshift bomb planted beside a road used by military convoys.

And police said two bodyguards were wounded when unidentified gunmen opened fire in the city, while in Baghdad three Iraqi policemen were wounded in a bomb blast.

Also in the Iraqi capital, two suspects carrying grenades were arrested during a funeral attended by hundreds of people paying their respects to a Sunni Muslim cleric assassinated late Saturday, a local sheikh said.

Sheikh Thamer Suleiman al-Zari was shot dead on the doorstep of his Baghdad home by unknown assailants.

Fueling fears of imminent communal strife, police in the northern city of Kirkuk said a Kurd and a Sunni Arab were arrested Saturday for plotting attacks against the Shiite Muslim majority during the upcoming Ashura religious celebration.

Ashura, nine days away, commemorates the assassination of Hussein, the revered grandson of the prophet Mohammed, in 680 AD.

Amidst the unrest, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, on a five-day trip to Tokyo, said many issues remained to be addressed in helping rebuild Iraq, where his advisor Lakhdar Brahimi earlier this month completed a fact-finding mission.

"I think the team has laid the ground work for further progress but there are a number of important issues and questions to be addressed," Annan said after a one-hour meeting with Japan's Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi.

"I will release my report of the team's work in Iraq tomorrow in New York," he added.

After meeting Brahimi last week, Annan said that elections in Iraq before the US-led coalition hands over power on June 30 are impossible.

Coalition and Iraqi officials have warned that Saddam loyalists and Islamic militants are trying to fan the flames of sectarian strife in the turbulent period before Iraq recovers its independence.

The Islamic extremist group Al-Qaeda is "involved and active" in Iraq, Rumsfeld said on Sunday during a stopover in Ireland.

Rumsfeld, who told reporters that he was headed for "Kuwait and a few other places," warned that terror groups, Saddam loyalists and criminals "are clearly attempting to foment strife between various religious and ethnic groups".

Back on the ground, coalition troops were buoyed by the arrival of extra Japanese forces in Kuwait to join a contingent carrying out humanitarian work in southern Iraq.

The group of 140 soldiers will beef up Japan's first military deployment since World War II in a conflict zone, as back home Tokyo tightened security at key sites fearing terror attacks.

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