Gunmen have attacked Iraq's largest oil refinery, killing a guard and forcing a shutdown which threatened to exacerbate acute electricity shortages that have prompted violent protests.

The gunmen detonated bombs which sparked a fire and forced the facility to halt operations, officials said.

A few hours later, a small refinery in the south shut down after a technical failure sparked a fire in a storage unit, they added.If not fixed swiftly, the two shutdowns could translate into long lines at fuel stations and even longer power cuts.

The attack on Iraq's largest refinery, Beiji, began at about 3.30am, with armed men killing one guard and wounding another before planting bombs near some production units for benzene and kerosene, said the spokesman for Salahuddin province, Mohammed al-Asi.

He added that about 45 soldiers have been brought in temporarily to protect the facility, and that technicians currently repairing the refinery estimated it would be back online later this week.

Iraqi Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said an investigation would be launched and that he hoped operations could resume shortly.The closures could spell trouble for Iraqi consumers, especially at a time when the weather is just beginning to warm up and more citizens will be relying on their air conditioning.

Thousands have marched on government buildings and clashed with security forces in cities across Iraq in an outpouring of anger, the largest and most violent anti-government protests in the country since political unrest began spreading in the Arab world weeks ago.

The protests, billed as a 'Day of Rage', were fuelled by anger over corruption, chronic unemployment and shoddy public services from the Shiite-dominated government.

The Press Association



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