BAGHDAD – Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group recaptured most of the town of Beiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery, state television and a provincial governor said Tuesday.
The strategic town, 250 kilometres north of Baghdad, will likely be a base for a future push to take back Saddam Hussein’s hometown just to the south, one of the main prizes overrun by the extremists last summer. But troops backed by Shiite militias faced pockets of stiff resistance around Beiji, hindering their advance.
There was no word on the fate of the refinery, which lies on Beiji’s northern outskirts, but the advances in the town could help break the five-month siege of the facility by Islamic State fighters. Since June, a small army unit inside the refinery, resupplied and reinforced by air, has successfully resisted wave after wave of extremist assaults.
Lifting the siege of the refinery, which sits inside a sprawling complex, was likely the next objective in the campaign to rid Beiji of the militants, according to military officials reached in the town by telephone.
Hours after news from Beiji broke, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a military outpost in the Tarmiyah district north of Baghdad, killing seven soldiers and wounding 13 others, according to police and hospital officials. Those killed included the post’s commander, a major, and two other officers, a captain and lieutenant, they said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of the militant Sunnis of the Islamic State group. Also, nine people were killed and 24 injured in three separate blasts in and around Baghdad.
State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured Beiji’s local government and police headquarters at the centre of the town. It aired footage taken Tuesday of army tanks and armoured personnel carriers moving around the town’s dusty streets and a ball of white smoke rising in the background.
Al-Saadi later spoke to state television by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance. Three military officials later reached by The Associated Press in the town said the advancing army troops and Shiite militiamen are being slowed down by booby-trapped houses and ambushes.
Raed Ibrahim, the governor of Salahuddin province, where both Beiji and Tikrit are located, said the military had secured about 75 per cent of the town as of Tuesday, retaking the centre of the town and outlying districts. He said government forces continued to meet fierce resistance from the militants, whom he said were using suicide bombers to stall the military’s advance.
Ibrahim, speaking to the AP by telephone, also said booby-trapped buildings posed an added threat in Beiji.
Neither the military officials nor Ibrahim gave casualty figures for the government forces or the militants.
The officials, however, said the forces had blocked access to Beiji from Anbar province, where militants control vast swaths of land, prior to their assault on the town to prevent militant reinforcements from reaching the city.
The military, police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Government officials in Baghdad offered no immediate comment on the news.
The Beiji oil refinery has a capacity of some 320,000 barrels a day, accounting for a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. A fire raged for days back in June at one of its storage units, but the refinery is believed to have also suffered major damage elsewhere.
Iraq’s army and security forces have partially regrouped after melting away in the face of the summer’s Islamic State group offensive. In recent weeks, they recaptured a string of small towns and villages, but taking Beiji would be strategically significant in what is shaping up to be a drawn-out campaign of attrition against the extremists.
Recapturing Beiji also would be a major boost for Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition have aided Iraqi forces, militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling Islamic State militants. Hundreds of U.S. advisers and trainers also have been working with the Iraqis.
U.S. Central Command said Monday that coalition aircraft conducted seven airstrikes near Beiji since Friday, destroying three small militant units, a sniper position and two militant vehicles, including one used for construction.
Meanwhile in Syria, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura repeated his call for a truce in the northern city of Aleppo where rebels still hold large areas, although they are under increasing attack from advancing government forces. De Mistura, who met Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday, said an Aleppo truce could be a step toward a wider resolution of the country’s civil war.
Assad has said the suggestion was “worth studying.”
And in Qatar, ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani warned that U.S.-led airstrikes won’t be enough to defeat “terrorism and extremism” in Iraq and Syria. Speaking to the Gulf nation’s legislative advisory council, he said the policies of Assad’s government and “some militias in Iraq” – a thinly-veiled reference to Iranian-backed Shiite militias – are the most important factors contributing to extremism in the two countries.
Qatar allows U.S.-led coalition forces to use its vast al-Udeid air base to launch airstrikes against IS positions in Syria and Iraq. It also has provided arms and other aid to Syrian rebels, but has come under fire from critics for its support of Islamist groups. Qatar denies the charge.
Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad; Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar; and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.