Updated from 1:13 p.m. EDT

Crude oil prices Tuesday closed lower again, falling through $46 a barrel for the first time in a week, as Iraq appeared to be making progress in returning exports to normal levels.

The October futures contract ended down 84 cents, or 1.8%, at $45.21, after a 1.4% decline Monday. Prices have closed lower three sessions in a row after the recently expired September contract touched a high of $49.40 in intraday trading Friday.

Prices fell yesterday after Iraq said exports from its northern and southern facilities had resumed. Iraq exports have ranged between 1.7 million and 1.9 million barrels a day recently.

Violence in Iraq and its potential to disrupt production and exports -- as it has on several occasions since the U.S.-led war and subsequent occupation -- has become a constant factor for the markets.

In addition, traders continue to monitor fighting in Iraq, where the provisional government and U.S. forces again battled militia in Najaf.

The recent showdown between Iraq's interim government and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf has been a major focus of the market.

Edgy traders have had no shortage of reasons to bid up oil recently, though many market watchers say prices are due for a sizable and much-needed correction as they push toward $50.

Uncertainty also surrounds the outcome of the high-stakes tax battle between the Russian government and Russia's biggest oil company, Yukos -- a tug-of-war drama that has sparked frequent concerns for its potential to slow exports. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently told President Bush that Russian producers had raised output to allay market concerns about supply, according to

The Financial Times

.

Crude oil prices have routinely hit record highs in the past three weeks, after a modest decline from their previous June high as OPEC increased its official production level by some 2.5 million barrels a day.