Although the flames and billowing smoke made for an impressive display during the latest attack, the US authorities were quickly able to isolate the damage and repair the destroyed portion of pipeline.

Nevertheless, at an estimated export value of $7 million a day, any interruption of the vital flow of oil proves to be costly, and each new attack illustrates just how vulnerable this 300km long stretch of pipeline remains.

In addition to attacking infrastructure targets, Iraqi resistance fighters have also increased the scale and scope of their operations against US-led occupation forces.

Growing instability

Since the American occupation was completed in May, cities in northern Iraq have been considered relatively quiet, with the majority of the resistance attacks having taken place in Baghdad and central Iraq.

However, what had previously amounted to only sporadic attacks against US personnel in the north has now become commonplace.

"When we first deployed into the [Kirkuk] airbase, we only experienced incoming mortar fire about once a month," said Specialist Michael Krause, an airforce military policeman from Fort Hood,Texas.

"But ever since September, we’ve been getting hit just about every night."

American intelligence officials don’t believe this development indicates an increase in Iraqi resistance forces; but rather it reflects a repositioning of their resources.

US soldiers are struggling to
contain the flames of resistance

"We have been mounting major offence operations against the Saddam loyalists in both the Sunni Triangle and along the Iraqi-Syrian border," explained a US intelligence agent.

"The result seems to have been that these terrorists are now seeking softer targets in areas which were previously considered secure."

Ethnic tensions

Another unsettling development taking place in northern Iraq is the widening division between the various ethnic groups which share a historical claim to this oil-rich region.

Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government, the Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs residing in this region have been polarising and raising their own private militia armies.

Over the past nine months, a number of minor skirmishes have occurred between these rival factions, particularly in the Kirkuk region.

On 21 November, this escalating inter-ethnic violence erupted in the form of a massive car bomb detonated beside the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Estimated to have contained approximately one ton of nitroglycerin, the car bomb shattered the garden wall and destroyed the ground floor offices of the PUK complex.

At least four PUK peshmerga militiamen were killed by the blast, along with a female teacher and three young children who were passing by the building at the time of the explosion.

"The Americans want us to claim that this was the work of al-Qaeda, Islamic fundamentalists," said Hal Gurd, the 57-year-old director of the Kurdish secret service.

Looking to blame

"However, such a theory is nonsense. This bombing was carefully planned and executed by people wishing to weaken Kurdish control of Kirkuk."

"When we first deployed into the [Kirkuk] airbase, we only experienced incoming mortar fire about once a month. But ever since September, we’ve been getting hit just about every night"

Specialist Michael Krause, airforce military policeman

When asked who he really thinks is responsible for the attack, Mr Gurd did not hesitate to answer: "The Turkish intelligence."

Although Gurd can offer no proof, his theory is not without some merit.

Last week, Jalal Talabani, the PUK’s leader as well as the current acting-president for the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, declared that "Kirkuk is a Kurdish city."

Declarations such as these serve to heighten Turkish fears that a post-Saddam Iraq will fail to remain unified within its existing boundaries and that if the oil riches of Kirkuk came under Kurdish control the creation of an independent Kurdistan would become economically viable.

Turkmen concerns

Already the separatist movement among Turkey’s large Kurdish minority has been revitalised and the Turks fear that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq could re-ignite armed insurrection in the country’s eastern provinces.

Since the beginning of the war, the Turkish government has demanded that the human rights of Iraq’s Turkmen minority be respected in post-Saddam Iraq.

Numbering approximately two million, the Iraqi Turkmen are largely centered around Kirkuk, where they actually constitute the majority population.

"There were always divisions and some resentment between the Kurds and the Turkmen here," explained Ibrahim Atli, a 47-year-old Turkmen real estate broker in Kirkuk.

"However, these minor differences are now being fanned into the flames of civil war [and] only because, after nine months of occupation, the Americans have failed to produce any jobs for the Iraqi people."

Religious divisions

The post-war political chaos has also led to a widening religious division between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslims.

With no set calendar date to mark Eid al-Fitr, the celebration which signifies the end of Ramadan, several Shia and Sunni clerics declared their own separate timings to mark this day.

As a result, Eid celebrations – complete with random gunfire – stretched over three days.

"This would never have happened under Saddam," said Laila al-Saadi, a 36-year-old Sunni Arab.

"For all of his faults, he ruled Iraq with an iron fist. He would not have let the clerics make such divisive decisions. Saddam would simply say ‘This is Eid’ and everyone would obey."

Disappearing chance

If indeed it is not already too late, the window of opportunity for the US to "win the peace" in Iraq is fast coming to a close.

The Iraqi resistance is not only gaining strength, the fighters are also winning popular support from a population that is largely disillusioned by an oppressive US occupation force.

The US-appointed governing council has yet to develop any sort of collective direction, let alone garner any respect from the country’s citizenry.

As the Baghdad-based US administration founders, Iraq’s numerous religious leaders are strengthening their own power and various militias are actively recruiting new soldiers.