Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group have reportedly recaptured the heart of the town of Beiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery.
Retaking Beiji could allow Iraqi forces a base to attack neighbouring Tikrit, taken by the extremists after their lightning advance this summer. It also represents a morale boost for Iraq’s beleaguered security forces after many of its troops fled the militant offensive.
State television quoted the top army commander in Beiji, General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, as saying troops recaptured the city’s local government and police headquarters at the centre of the town.
He later spoke to the station by telephone but the line appeared to be cut off after he said his forces were meeting stiff resistance.
A senior military official in Beiji confirmed the recapture of the city centre but added that intense clashes continued elsewhere in the town. He said 75% of Beiji was now in the hands of government troops.
General Al-Saadi said on Saturday that his forces had recaptured most of the city and that it would soon be entirely rid of Islamic State fighters.
The refinery 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, resisted wave after wave of extremist assaults.
Iraq’s army and security forces have partially regrouped after melting away in the face of the summer’s Islamic State offensive. In recent weeks, they have 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 would also 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.
Airstrikes by a US-led coalition have aided Iraqi forces, militias and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling Islamic State militants. Hundreds of advisers and trainers also have been working with the Iraqis.
US Central Command said yesterday that coalition aircraft had conducted seven airstrikes near Beiji since Friday, destroying three small militant units, a sniper position and two militant vehicles, including one used for construction.