BAGHDAD — Sunni extremists on Wednesday battled security forces for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, which provides Iraq with more than a quarter of its domestically produced fuel and could help fund the militants’ rampage across the country.
The loss of the refinery would mark another strategic blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is urging the United States to bomb the militants as they push toward Baghdad from the country’s north.
In a televised address Wednesday, Mr. Maliki struck an upbeat tone on the security situation, even as fighting raged at Baiji, saying volunteers who had answered a call from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric would form the core of the new security forces. The government hopes the recruits will help plug gaps in the army after mass desertions, but Baghdad is also desperate for outside assistance.
Perhaps in an attempt to satisfy the United States, Mr. Maliki’s speech lacked some of the religious rhetoric of previous addresses. But he attacked his political opponents for assisting countries in the region in a “sinister” plot to break up the country.
The clashes at the Baiji refinery, 130 miles north of Baghdad, came after an agreement collapsed between workers and tribesmen affiliated with insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, according to state oil officials and refinery workers. The deal meant oil was still pumped to the facility last week, even though militants controlling the surrounding area could hijack tankers and cut off pipelines, effectively controlling output, they said.
In Baghdad, military and security officials denied that the facility had fallen out of government hands. Gen. Qassim Atta, a military spokesman, said on Iraqiya television that the refinery was entirely under government control, and that 40 insurgents had been killed as security forces repelled their advance Wednesday. Gen. Atta’s claims of government gains have conflicted with accounts from the ground in the past.
But regardless of whether the state manages to retain its grip on the refinery plant itself, it will remain offline as long as militants surrounding the facility can direct its output. The shutdown could also prevent ISIS from supplying basic services in territory it now controls. Without the ability to provide fuel to power plants or distribute gasoline, the group could have a more difficult time building support from the civilian population.
As the northern city of Mosul fell to insurgents June 10, tribesmen affiliated with ISIS negotiated with workers at Baiji to keep the oil pumping, according to a refinery employee and two senior officials from North Oil Company, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Seemingly unaware of the situation, Iraq’s Oil Ministry continued to supply crude oil from Kirkuk until Friday, when the supply was cut, they said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that production at the plant had stopped for several days due to “a combination of technical and security reasons.” Since it is a domestic oil facility, the shutdown has little impact on crude exports, she said.
With the plant no longer running, ISIS launched an assault Wednesday morning. Air force helicopters attempted to repel the attack, which included a volley of mortar fire, and set storage tanks on fire. Clashes continued Wednesday night, according to workers, indicating that at least some government forces were still holed up inside.
First Published June 19, 2014 12:00 AM