BAGHDAD: Security forces entered Iraq’s largest refinery for the first time Tuesday after months of battling ISIS militants who had surrounded it, a police colonel said.
Police sources said security forces were clearing out mines from the refinery complex and had moved to an area just to the northwest where they faced some resistance from the jihadis. The insurgents still have a presence there.
Complete recovery of the Beiji facility could provide critical momentum for government forces charged with restoring stability in a country facing its worst security crisis since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
“The first Iraqi force, the anti-terrorism force called Mosul Battalion, entered Beiji refinery for the first time in five months,” Police Colonel Saleh Jaber of the Beiji refinery protection force told Reuters.
State television flashed news of the advance and broadcast footage it said was of Iraqi security forces entering the refinery’s gate.
“In this area, terrorists were stationed to the left and right. If God is willing, Beiji will be the main key to liberating each span of Iraq,” the commander of provincial security operations, Abdel-Wahab al-Sa’adi, told the broadcaster.
U.S-led airstrikes have prevented the ultraextreme Islamist group, which swept through northern Iraq in June almost unopposed by the Iraqi army, from making significant further territorial gains for its self-proclaimed caliphate.
ISIS seized the city of Beiji and surrounded the sprawling refinery during that first advance in June.
The group has stolen oil and petroleum products from areas it controls in an effort to create a self-sustaining state, oil officials say.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sacked 26 military commanders this month for corruption in an apparent bid to show the government is serious about improving the performance of the army to counter ISIS.
The refinery was producing around 175,000 barrels per day before it was closed, a senior Iraqi official said in June. Iraq’s domestic daily consumption is estimated at 600,000-700,000 bpd.
In New York, the Security Council was told by the U.N. envoy for Iraq that the new government’s strategy of enlisting Kurds and local tribes in the fight against Islamists is yielding results.
Abadi has made it a priority to pay salaries, arm and train fighters from local tribes and communities, and provide legal guarantees for volunteers, envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the 15-member council. “This strategy is bearing fruit.”
“Communities are beginning to push back.”
The massacre by ISIS fighters of 322 members of the Albu Nimr tribe spurred cooperation with the government in its campaign to defeat the jihadis, he said.
Mladenov called on all militia groups who are not aligned with the jihadis to enter talks with Baghdad on resolving differences and joining the government’s anti-Islamist campaign.
Abadi took office in September as Iraq was in the throes of a fierce offensive by ISIS fighters, and replaced Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies were blamed for the collapse of the army in the face of the onslaught.
Abadi’s government last week reached a deal with Iraq’s Kurdish region on oil exports that was seen as a boost to national unity. The self-administered Kurdish region’s peshmerga fighters are on the front lines in the battle against the jihadis.
At least 10,000 civilians have been killed and almost 20,000 injured in Iraq this year, while nearly 1.9 million people have been displaced, Mladenov said.
“These are devastating times for the country,” he said.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the council that humanitarian conditions in Iraq continue to deteriorate with 5.2 million people in need of assistance and over 2 million displaced from their homes including over 200,000 in the last 10 weeks.
While ISIS is responsible for the majority of atrocities, she said armed groups including militias affiliated with the government “continue to carry out brutal acts of violence against civilians.”