The surprise Islamic State group advance came despite U.S.-led aerial bombardment of Islamic State positions in the central Iraqi city of Baiji and is a reminder of the precarious security situation in central Iraq.
IRBIL, Iraq — Islamic State group fighters 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, witnesses said Saturday.
The surprise Islamic State group advance came despite U.S.-led aerial bombardment of Islamic State positions in the central Iraqi city of Baiji, which includes the refinery, and is a reminder of the precarious security situation in central Iraq, where government troops are stretched thin battling Islamic State forces.
Speaking from inside the facility, an Iraqi officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said government troops were running low on food, water and ammunition. He said the situation was chaotic after 11 months of nearly unbroken siege.
Yazidis slaughtered: Islamic State group militants shot to death at least 25 captive Yazidis at a prison camp in northern Iraq, a Yazidi lawmaker said Saturday, the latest mass killing carried out by the extremists targeting the sect. The killings occurred at a prison camp near Tal Afar, about 90 miles east of the Syrian border or 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, legislator Mahma Khalil said. He added that those killed included men, women and the elderly. The extremist Sunni militant group views Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as apostates deserving of death.
Baghdad blasts: Iraqi officials say two bomb blasts minutes apart in a popular commercial area killed 17 people in Baghdad on Saturday.
Police say the two bombs, one a suicide bomb and the other a car bomb, went off just 10 minutes apart in the busy commercial area of Karrada in the heart of Baghdad. No one took immediate responsibility for the attacks.
Airstrike victims: The U.S. military said Saturday it was looking into a group’s claim that at least 52 civilians were killed in U.S.-led airstrikes near the Syrian border town of Kobani amid its campaign against the extremist Islamic State group. The strikes happened Thursday and Friday on the Syrian village of Bir Mahli, the Britain-based based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The U.S.-led coalition said its strikes during that time destroyed seven Islamic State positions and one of the group’s vehicles near Kobani.
The Associated Press
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 airstrike 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’ worth of gasoline.
Losing the refinery, either if captured or seriously damaged, would be a crippling blow to the government and a huge strategic success for Islamic State. It would take billions of dollars and years to replace the refinery.
The Iraqi Defense ministry would not comment on the situation at the refinery, but a member of the governing council for Salahuddin province, which includes Baiji, admitted that 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 group. He said earlier reports had indicated only 10 to 30 percent of the refinery had fallen to Islamic State troops. “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.
The U.S. Central Command on Friday said airstrikes had destroyed what it called two Islamic State fighting positions in the previous 24 hours near Baiji.
U.S. officials have been cautious in their assessments of Iraqi government efforts to roll back the Islamic State group in central Iraq, despite the victory a month ago in Tikrit, where a combination of heavy U.S. airstrikes and Iraqi special-operations forces succeeded in retaking the city, which had been occupied by Islamic State last year.
The Islamic State responded to its defeat in Tikrit by opening new offensives at Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Baiji.