Iraq’s biggest oil refinery fell to Islamic extremists Wednesday morning, after army helicopter gunships failed to beat back an attack on the facility 130 miles north of Baghdad, according to refinery workers, eyewitnesses and an Iraqi army officer who fled the scene.
The facility at Baiji is the first operating refinery to fall to the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, who have swept through much of northern Iraq and had surrounded the refinery in Baiji for the past week, battling with a battalion of the Iraqi Army that had been backed up by air support.
The capture of the refinery could deny the Iraq government an important source of fuel and provide the insurgents a potentially lucrative income earner, assuming they can ensure the facility’s continued operation and sell the fuel, at least in the areas they control. ISIS already profits from its control of oil resources in eastern Syria.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta, denied that the Baiji refinery had fallen in a televised statement that he made hours after ISIS fighters had apparently taken over the refinery.
“Baiji is now under control of our security forces, completely,” General Atta said, appearing on Iraqiya, the state television channel.
Reports from Baiji contradicted that assessment. A refinery worker who gave only his first name, Mohammad, reached by telephone, said that the refinery had been attacked at 4 a.m. and that workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers. In the course of the fighting, an unknown number of natural gas storage tanks were set ablaze, although it was not clear by which side. After taking heavy losses, the troops guarding the facility surrendered and at least 70 were taken prisoner, he said.
Refinery workers were sent home unharmed by the extremists, said Mohammad, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution.
A lieutenant from the battalion guarding Baiji, also reached by telephone and speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had fled his unit when it became clear that it would not be able to hold out against ISIS forces.
SOURCE: ROD NORDLAND
The New York Times