Militants from the Islamic State have taken control of half Iraq’s largest oil refinery and have cut supply lines to the 150 or so government troops who are holding out inside the facility, witnesses reported Saturday.
The surprise Islamic State advance came despite U.S.-led aerial bombardment of Islamic State positions in the central Iraqi city of Baiji, where the refinery is located, and is a reminder of the precarious security situation in central Iraq where elite government troops are stretched thin battling Islamic State forces.
Speaking from inside the facility, an Iraqi officer who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter said government troops were running low on food, water and ammunition. He said the situation was chaotic after 11 months of nearly unbroken siege.
He said Islamic State fighters control “all the major buildings,” 80 percent of the watchtowers around the facility, and had flanked government positions with “snipers and suicide bombers driving heavily armored car bombs.”
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He appealed for the government in Baghdad to send supplies, ammunition and air cover. “We have been under siege for four days without any major coalition air strike assistance inside the facility,” he said.
The Baiji refinery remains one of the most important economic assets in Iraq, even though it has been shut down since last summer, when Islamic State fighters first began trying to capture it. Before last June, it produced about half Iraq’s production of refined products, such as gasoline. In addition to lost revenue, the government’s inability to operate it has forced it to import hundreds of millions of dollars of gasoline.
The loss of the facility, either if captured or seriously damaged, would be a crippling blow to the government and a huge strategic success for the Islamic State. The facility would require billions of dollars and years to replace.
The Iraqi Defense ministry refused to comment on the situation at the refinery, but a member of the governing council for Salahuddin province, where Baiji is located, admitted Islamic State forces had breached the perimeter, but denied that much of the facility was under their control.
“There are conflicting reports about Daash’s control,” the council member, Adnan Ibrahim, said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He said earlier reports had indicated that only 10 to 30 percent of the refinery had fallen to the Islamic State. “Then last night there was the news that Daash had expanded its control and is progressing slowly into the refinery to between 30 and 40 percent of the area,” he said.
He said the key production control sections of the plant remained in government hands. “The security forces control more than 60 percent of the refinery,” he said.
On Friday, the United States Central Command said airstrikes had destroyed what it called two Islamic State fighting positions in the previous 24 hours near Baiji but provided no update Saturday of its efforts.
U.S. officials have been cautious in their assessments of Iraqi government efforts to roll back the Islamic State in central Iraq, despite the victory a month ago in Tikrit, where a combination of heavy U.S. aerial bombardment and elite Iraqi special operations forces succeeded in taking the city, which had been occupied by the Islamic State last year.
But the Islamic State responded to its defeat at Tikrit by opening new offensives at Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Baiji, where Islamic State two weeks ago also were closing in on the refinery. Both offensives were blunted by heavy air strikes and the deployment of Iraqi special forces.
But military specialists predicted then that there were too few elite Iraqi troops to withstand offensives in such widely separated areas – Ramadi and Baiji lie 120 miles from one another. In Washington, a U.S. official, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, said last month that Iraqi forces still had years of training ahead of them before they could be expected to defeat the Islamic State.
“ISIL remains a very adaptive enemy,” the official said then, using the administration’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “They’re going to do things that surprise everybody. We expect that.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @mitchprothero