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Nov 11, 2014 4:24 AM

Iraq military: Troops take center of refinery town

The Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group recaptured the heart and outlying districts of the town of Beiji, home to the country's largest oil refinery, state television and a provincial governor said Tuesday.

Retaking Beiji, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, could allow Iraqi forces a base to attack neighboring Tikrit, taken by the extremists in their lightning advance this summer. But troops backed by Shiite militias faced pockets of stiff resistance around Beiji, hindering their advance.

State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured the city's local government and police headquarters at the center of the town. It aired what appeared to be archival footage of the town showing Iraqi army troops firing their weapons from behind sand barriers.

Al-Saadi later spoke to state television by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance.

Raed Ibrahim, the governor of Salahuddin province, where Beiji and Tikrit are located, said the military had secured about 75 percent of the town as of Tuesday, retaking the center of the town and outlying districts. He said government forces continued to meet fierce resistance from the militants, whom he said were using suicide bombers to stall the military's advance.

Ibrahim also told The Associated Press that many militants booby-trapped buildings in Beiji, posing an added threat.

A senior military official earlier told the AP that troops had recaptured of about 75 percent of Beiji. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Government officials in Baghdad offered no immediate comment on the news. Al-Saadi said Saturday that his forces had recaptured most of the city and that it would soon be entirely rid of Islamic State group fighters.

There was no word on the fate of the refinery, which lies on the outskirts of the town and has been besieged by Islamic State fighters since June. The small army unit inside the refinery, resupplied and reinforced by air for months, successfully resisted wave after wave of extremist assaults.

Iraq's army and security forces partially have regrouped after melting away in the face of the summer's Islamic State offensive. In recent weeks, they recaptured a string of small towns and villages, but taking Beiji would be strategically significant in what is shaping up to be a drawn-out campaign against the extremists.

Recapturing Beiji also would be a major boost for Iraq's Shiite-led government and could pave the way for a fresh offensive to drive Islamic State militants from the nearby city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and the capital of Salahuddin province.

The Beiji campaign has been carried out by a contingent of troops and security forces drawn from a nearby military base and airlifted from government-controlled areas elsewhere.

Airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition have aided Iraqi forces, militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling Islamic State militants. Hundreds of U.S. advisers and trainers also have been working with the Iraqis.

U.S. Central Command said Monday that coalition aircraft conducted seven airstrikes near Beiji since Friday, destroying three small militant units, a sniper position and two militant vehicles, including one used for construction.

Meanwhile in Syria, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura reiterated his call for a truce in the northern city of Aleppo where rebels still hold large areas, although they are under increasing attack from advancing government forces. De Mistura, who met Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday, said an Aleppo truce could be a step toward a wider resolution of the country's civil war.

Assad has said the suggestion was "worth studying."

And in Qatar, ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani warned U.S.-led airstrikes won't be enough to defeat "terrorism and extremism" in Iraq and Syria. Speaking to the Gulf nation's legislative advisory council, he said the policies of Assad's government and "some militias in Iraq" a reference to Iranian-backed Shiite militias are the most important factors contributing to extremism in the two countries.

Qatar plays a supporting role in the U.S.-led military coalition conducting airstrikes by allowing coalition forces to use its vast al-Udeid air base. The country also has provided substantial arms and other aid to Syrian rebels, but has come under fire from critics for its support of Islamist groups. Qatar denies supporting militants and says it has never provided backing for Islamic State fighters.


Associated Press writers Vivian Salama in Baghdad; Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar; and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.


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