Iraqi forces break jihadist siege of main oil refinery
BHAGDAD: Iraqi forces broke the Islamic State group’s
months-long siege of the country’s largest oil refinery on Saturday as America’s
top officer flew in to discuss the expanding war against the jihadists.
Completely expelling IS fighters from the area around
the refinery would be another significant achievement for Baghdad, a day after
pro-government forces retook the nearby town of Baiji. “Iraqi forces... reached
the gate of the refinery,” Salaheddin province Governor Raad al-Juburi told
Three military officers confirmed that Iraqi forces
had reached the refinery, 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of Baghdad, where
security forces have been surrounded and under repeated attack since June.
This new success for government forces came a day
after they recaptured nearby Baiji, the largest town to be retaken since IS-led
militants swept across Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland in June.
It also followed another victory earlier in the week
in the eastern province of Diyala, where a joint operation by the army and
Shiite militiamen wrested back control of the Adhaim Dam, one of the country’s
A breakthrough preliminary deal reached on Thursday
between the federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region on
long-standing budget and oil disputes also raised the prospect of increased
coordination in the fight against IS.
America's top military officer, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, arrived in Iraq for talks on the
expanding military operations against the jihadists with Prime Minister Haidar
al-Abadi and other Iraqi and American officials.
A US-led coalition is carrying out a campaign of air
strikes targeting IS jihadists in both Iraq and Syria, and Washington has
announced plans to increase the number of its military personnel in Iraq to up
Dempsey "arrived in Iraq today to visit with US
troops, commanders and Iraqi leaders", his spokesman, Colonel Ed Thomas,
“The primary purpose of his visit is to get a
first-hand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings and get (a) better
sense of how the campaign is progressing,” Thomas said.
The United States and other governments have pledged
trainers and advisers to aid Iraqi security forces in their battle against IS.
American personnel are assessing deployment sites in
Iraq, including Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, a key area that stretches
from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to
The IS jihadist group released an audio recording on
Thursday purportedly of its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after rumours that
coalition air strikes may have killed or wounded him.
It has had most of the initiative in recent months,
but the man said to be Baghdadi seemed at pains to reassure his followers, and
the lack of video in the message failed to dispel speculation he might still
have been wounded.
The operation to retake Baiji began more than four
weeks ago when security forces and pro-government fighters began advancing
towards the town from the south.
Slowed by bombs the militants had planted on the way,
they finally entered the town on October 31.
The huge refinery once produced 300,000 barrels a day,
accounting for half of the nation's needs in refined oil products.
It is also on the road linking the two largest cities
in Iraq under jihadist control, Mosul and Tikrit.
Washington has repeatedly stated that it will not
deploy "combat troops" to Iraq, but Dempsey said on Thursday that
sending out advisers alongside Iraqi forces was something that "we're
As federal forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Sunni
tribesmen and Shiite militias battle IS on several fronts, near-daily bombings
take their toll.
On Saturday, a blast in an area north of Baghdad
killed at least four people, a day afer at least 17 died in two explosions in
northwestern neighbourhoods of the capital.