Iraqi army troops backed by pro-government Shiite Muslim militias secured the highway through the Islamic State-occupied city of Baiji on Friday and were within half a mile of breaking the Islamic State’s five-month siege of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, according to residents and military officials at the scene.
Defense Ministry officials in Baghdad told journalists the refinery had been secured, but three military officers and two local residents said that announcement was premature. They said that while the Islamic State largely had abandoned its positions around the refinery, the government-aligned forces remained more than 800 yards away, blocked from reaching the facility by mines, sniper fire and the possibility of an Islamic State counterattack.
Most of the city and surrounding areas remain under the control of the Islamic State or its Sunni Muslim tribal allies, who appeared to be preparing a counteroffensive.
“We control the highway through the city and control access to the refinery,” said one Iraqi officer reached by phone in Baiji, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter. “But Daash and the tribes still control most of the city. We are within one kilometer of the refinery, but there are so many IEDs and bombs to dismantle.” Daash is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
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Another Iraqi officer on the scene gave a more upbeat account, saying Iraqi forces had reached the refinery and that the Islamic State presence in the city was limited to suicide bombers and snipers. He said government forces had taken control of Baiji’s main city center and the highway through it in a two-week operation that involved multiple airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
“Praise to Allah, we control the city of Baiji fully,” said 1st Lt. Ghaith Hayali. “There’s just one kilometer between us and the refinery, and the only thing stopping us are the improvised explosive devices the terrorists have planted around the refinery.”
Hayali said the troops were aware that suicide bombers still lurked nearby but that his men expected those attacks and were prepared to head them off.
The Canadian government released footage Friday of a strike Tuesday by one of its F-18 fighter jets near Baiji that destroyed an Islamic State position and killed several fighters.
The capture of downtown Baiji by government forces and their approach on the refinery mark a major advance in government efforts to turn back the Islamic State in central Iraq and take control of the main highway linking Baghdad to Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city, which fell to the Islamic State on June 10. In the days afterward, the Islamic State and its Sunni tribal allies captured the cities of Baiji and Tikrit and laid siege to the refinery, where a small detachment of Iraqi troops remained holed up in the control room, supplied only by helicopter.
But over the past two months, Iraqi troops, bolstered by Shiite militias, have pushed up the north-south highway, occupying the central portions of Samarra, Tikrit and Baiji.
Residents and military personnel credited overnight airstrikes – U.S. Central Command said American aircraft had flown three combat missions near Baiji in recent days – and weeks of bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition with loosening the Islamic State fighters’ siege. Hayali said progress had been delayed primarily by the need to disarm thousands of booby traps, roadside bombs and mines that the Islamic State had laid over the last five months.
“We have entered most of the neighborhoods without a fight,” he said, adding that coalition airstrikes had played “a significant role in progress.”
“The only difficulty we face (now is) improvised explosive devices and mechanisms and booby-trapped houses,” he said.
At least 100 soldiers and militiamen have been killed in the explosions or fighting in the area in the last two weeks, he said.
Hayali predicted that the refinery could be completely under government control by Saturday, a development that would be a major economic and military victory against a backdrop of persistent Islamic State advances elsewhere, including Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.
An end to the Islamic State siege of the refinery also might be an economic boon for the government. Before the siege forced a shutdown of the refinery, it produced 40 percent of Iraq’s gasoline. With the refinery not working, the country has had to import gasoline from Kuwait and Turkey at prices far higher than the subsidized one set for sales to average Iraqis.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong day for the Canadian airstrike near Baiji for which footage was released. It took place Tuesday.
Nancy A. Youssef in Washington and McClatchy special correspondents in Irbil and Baghdad, who cannot be named for security reasons, contributed to this report.