Police and anti-corruption officials have broken up a vast smuggling ring, stopping more than 1,200 trucks full of crude oil illegally bound for Syria over the past three weeks, the Iraqi government said Friday.
The bust, the largest ever by Iraqi authorities, evolved over more than a month of investigation, surveillance and periodic arrests. It culminated this week with the apprehension of the alleged ringleader, Ahmed Omar al-Khatab, in the northwestern border town of Rabiyah, where the trucks are now parked in a giant depot under police guard.
Iraqi officials said they seized roughly 50,000 metric tons of oil -- roughly equivalent to 400,000 barrels, about a fifth of Iraq's average daily production -- valued at nearly $28 million, according to Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, an adviser to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari. U.S. forces were not involved in the sting, Ali said.
The governor of Iraq's Nineveh province, Duraid Kashmoula, confirmed details of the operation in an interview, as did Dawood al-Baghistani, the head of the Commission on Public Integrity in Nineveh. The commission, the government's anti-corruption arm, led the investigation.
"This is a hugely important event. It shows we can put a stop to some of these activities," said Kadhimi, who outlined the operation in a telephone interview Friday.
2 Marines killed, 22 wounded
Meanwhile, two U.S. Marines were killed and 22 wounded -- two of them critically -- in combat in the western province of Anbar, according to a statement released early Saturday by the U.S. military. The statement gave no details about the fighting or where it occurred. Anbar province is a vast area stretching west from Baghdad to the borders of Syria and Jordan.
Oil income of about $2 billion a month accounts for more than 90 percent of the revenue collected by Iraq's government. At roughly 1.9 million barrels per day, the country's oil industry is producing below pre-invasion levels and has been plagued by problems, including dilapidated infrastructure, sabotage of pipelines and refineries by insurgents, and rampant smuggling and corruption.
Earlier this year, Mishan Jubouri, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly, was charged with stealing funds allocated to the protection of pipelines. He left the country when an arrest warrant was issued.
Because Iraq's refining capacity is so limited, the country spends nearly $500 million a month importing refined fuels such as gasoline, which it sells at heavily subsidized prices. Hussein Uzri, head of the Trade Bank of Iraq, estimated in a recent interview that as much as 30 percent of imported fuels are unlawfully spirited out of the country and resold.
Bribe offered to let smugglers through
While Kadhimi said the government wasn't sure whether the Rabiyah smuggling ring used its profits to help insurgents, Baghistani said he was certain it did. Baghistani added that an unknown man called him to offer a $1 million bribe to allow the smugglers across the border.
The smuggling ring was discovered quietly in March, Kadhimi said. As oil trucks arrived there in recent weeks, border police detained them, telling the drivers their paperwork was being examined. Only about 20 of the 1,200 drivers who were stopped had legal papers, Baghistani said.
The police did not disclose the smuggling charges until they arrested Khatab, who returned from Syria this week to check on the progress of the shipments, Kadhimi said. At least three others involved in running the operation were also arrested, while most of the truck drivers were released. "They were paid a few hundred dollars and didn't know what they were doing was illegal," Kadhimi said.
While the bust represented a major success for a government that has had trouble fighting insurgents and enforcing the law, at least 18 Iraqis were killed in violence on Friday, according to news reports and police officials.
Wave of deadly attacks
In the city of Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, two bombs exploded two minutes apart at Sunni mosques, tearing through crowds leaving after Friday prayers. The first bomb detonated at the Saad Ibn Maath mosque in the New Baqubah neighborhood, killing four people. The second went off at the Aqsa mosque in the western part of the city, killing two brothers and wounding their father, witnesses said.
The attacks continued a wave of violence in Baqubah. Shiite Muslim shrines in and near the city were bombed on Wednesday and Thursday, killing at least 20 people. The bombings were part of a surge in attacks on both Sunni and Shiite holy places since the destruction of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on Feb. 22 pushed the country to the brink of a sectarian war.
The head of the Saad Ibn Maath mosque, Yusuf al-Dulaimi, said the attacks on Sunni and Shiite mosques in Baqubah were carried out by the same people and intended to "stoke sectarian war."
"Whether Sunnis or Shiites, the victims are all Iraqis," Dulaimi said.
Government taken to task
Meanwhile, the head of the leading Shiite mosque in Baghdad, where a triple suicide attack killed 79 people last Friday, castigated the prime minister for his response to the bombing.
"Where is our prime minister and his delegates for our wounded?" asked Jalaladdin al-Sagheer, the head of the Buratha mosque. "He did not bother himself to contact the wounded people, who were in every hospital. I received phone calls from foreign ambassadors and authorities from many countries, but our brother Jafari did not ever call."
Sagheer, known for his fiery speeches against Sunni leaders, said Jafari's conduct was particularly insulting because Sagheer's followers had been strong supporters of the main coalition of Shiite parties, of which Jafari is a member. However, the Buratha mosque is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite party that opposes Jafari's nomination to a new term as prime minister.
"The street is so angry," Sagheer said. "Our Shiite leadership's instructions are to preserve the unity between Sunnis and Shiites, but there is a limit to patience, and we have reached the limit."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.