Islamists have cornered commandos defending Iraq’s largest refinery

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 9, 2014 

— The fight for Iraq’s largest oil refinery has deteriorated into a tense standoff as 75 troops loyal to the government struggle to hold out in a small compound in the sprawling facility, surrounded by hundreds of radical Sunni Muslim militants.

Interviews with an Iraqi politician who’d been briefed on details of the siege and accounts from residents who live near the refinery indicate that the Islamic State’s fighters and their tribal allies now control virtually all of the 300-acre refinery at Baiji, with the exception of the compound, which contains the facility’s main switches and controls.

The Iraqi commandos are cut off from supplies and reinforcements, but the Islamic State has yet to launch a final assault, apparently because the militant group doesn’t want to cause irreparable harm to the refinery’s operating systems.

Despite the dire situation _ and the strategic importance of the refinery _ the Iraqi military is reluctant to send reinforcements or drop supplies from the air because of the risk that aircraft could be shot down, according to the interviews.

The politician asked not to be identified because he hasn’t been authorized to discuss the siege publicly. His version, however, closely tracked the accounts of witnesses who live near the refinery, providing the most detailed account so far of the crucial battle for Baiji.

Located about 155 miles north of Baghdad, the Baiji facility is crucial to Iraq’s economy _ three refineries that together are capable of refining 310,000 barrels per day.

The facility has been shut down since June 17 because of the siege.

A battalion of the Iraqi army’s 4th Division was tasked with protecting the refinery. According to the politician’s account, the defense began to unravel when a key officer, Brig. Gen. Aras Abdelqadir, who commanded the battalion, left as the Islamic State siege began. The remaining officers tried to leave, too, through an agreement brokered by local tribes.

But the soldiers under their command balked and wouldn’t let the officers leave without them.

When all 400 tried to leave, 75 special forces troops who were at the refinery stopped them.

“The battalion told the special forces, ‘We’re 400, you’re 75. We’re going to win this gunfight,’ so they let them leave,” the politician said.

The special forces troops remained in the compound, surrounded by militants who reportedly outnumber them by more than 5 to 1.

The commandos are struggling, the politician said. But he said no reinforcements were being sent because the military was afraid of aircraft being shot down. The roads have been lined with booby traps and are also too dangerous, he said.

The Islamic State could slowly starve them out if they don’t negotiate a surrender, the politician said.

“You can’t protect 10 square miles with 75 people,” he said.

The Islamic State and tribal military commanders at the siege, which involves about 500 militants and local allies, have repeatedly offered the holdouts amnesty and safe passage in exchange for peaceably handing over control of the vital infrastructure, residents said.

One resident who’s worked in the facility and declined to be identified out of fear of the militants and the government said that storming that part of the complex was impossible because of the likelihood of catastrophic damage to the refinery.

The commandos “have the place well protected and have at least 10 snipers on the roof who shoot at anyone who comes near them,” the resident said.

“Daash and the tribes can’t attack that part of the plant, because one stray bullet could destroy millions of dollars of equipment or blow up all of Saladin province,” he said. “Daash” is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

“Daash has given their word as Muslims the men will be allowed to safely leave,” he added, but said that so far the commandos “seem like they would rather die than surrender.”

“This cannot end unless they run out of food,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly described the command duties of Iraqi Brig. Gen. Aras Abdelqadir.

Lindsay Wise contributed to this article from Washington.

Allam reported from Baghdad, Prothero from Irbil, Iraq. Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com, mprothero@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @hannahallam, @mitchprothero.

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