BAGHDAD – Iraqi soldiers battling the Islamic State group recaptured the heart of the town of Beiji, home to the country’s largest oil refinery, state television and a military official said Tuesday.
Retaking Beiji, 250 kilometres north of Baghdad, 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, which saw many of its troop flee the militant offensive.
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 centre of the town. It aired what appeared to be archival footage of the town.
A senior military official reached by telephone in Beiji confirmed the recapture of the city centre, but added that intense clashes continued elsewhere in the town. The official told The Associated Press that 75 per cent of Beiji was now in the hands of government troops. 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 reports. 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.
Recapturing Beiji would be a major victory 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 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.