Iraqi forces regained full control Thursday of the country’s biggest oil refinery after heavy fighting with Sunni militants attempting to seize it, Agence France-Presse reported officials as saying.
“The security forces are in full control of the Baiji refinery,” Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security spokesman, said in televised remarks.
The announcement came after Iraqi government forces battled Sunni militants for control of the country’s biggest refinery on Thursday as Maliki waited for a U.S. response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shiite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
Al-Arabiya News Channel television showed smoke billowing from the plant and a black flag used by ISIS flying from a building. Workers trapped inside the complex, which spreads for miles close to the Tigris river, said Sunni militants seemed to hold most of the compound and that the security forces were concentrated around the refinery’s control room. Iraqi security officials have denied that the plant was close to falling.
The 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers said by telephone.
Military helicopters had attacked militant positions overnight, he added.
Baiji, 40 km (25 miles) north of Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past week by an array of armed Sunni groups, spearheaded by ISIS, which is seeking a new Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. On Tuesday, staff shut down the plant, which makes much of the fuel Iraqis in the north need for both transport and generating electricity.
ISIS, which considers Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority as heretics in league with neighboring, Shiite Iran, has led a Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major city of Mosul last week as Maliki’s U.S.-armed forces collapsed.
The group’s advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shiite militias and other volunteers.
ISIS, whose leader broke with al Qaeda after accusing the global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, in effect putting it well on the path to establishing its own well-armed enclave that Western countries fear could become a center for terrorism.
If the Baiji refinery falls, ISIS and its allies will have access to a large supply of fuel to add to the weaponry and economic resources seized in Mosul and across the north.
An oil ministry official said the loss of Baiji would cause shortages in the north, including the autonomous Kurdish area, but that the impact on Baghdad would be limited - at around 20 percent of supplies - since it was served by other refineries.
Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq’s Southern Oil Company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff.
He criticized the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shiite south and far from the fighting.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, many of whom feel excluded by the Shiite parties that have dominated elections since the Sunni Saddam was ousted.
In a televised address on Wednesday, Maliki appealed to tribes, a significant force in Sunni areas, to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas.”
But so far Maliki’s government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shiite militia - some of which have funding and backing from Iran - have mobilized to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad’s million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.
This week, Maliki fired four commanders for abandoning Mosul and said dozens of officers would be court martialed.
Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbors, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a rift dating to the decades following Islam’s foundation in the 7th century.
(With AFP and Reuters)SHOW MORE