Fighting at Iraq’s Baiji oil refinery is ‘flowing in the wrong direction’

Video released by the Islamic State’s ‘Amaq News from the Baiji oil refinery.

Security forces based at the country’s largest oil refinery in Baiji are in danger of losing control of the strategic facility, Iraqi officers and US officials have warned. The Islamic State controls large areas inside the refinery and have besieged the remaining Iraqi troops. The Iraqi military and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are moving towards Baiji in an effort to break the siege.

Iraqi officers have painted a dire picture of the situation inside the refinery. A colonel said that the complex “had been completely surrounded after militants cut all remaining supply routes used by the security forces,” Reuters reported. The Islamic State has mounted several attacks, including suicide bombings, in order to gain significant ground at the facility. The colonel also said that “up to two thirds” of the refinery is under the jihadist group’s control.

A special forces officer interviewed by Reuters also said that several sub-refineries, the northern part of the refinery, and a large portion of the southern part of the complex is under Islamic State control. The jihadist group has pushed so far into the refinery that airstrikes will be difficult to conduct without damaging the facility, according to one Iraqi officer.

The US military has also warned that the situation in Baiji is in danger of spiraling out of control. Yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters that the fighting is “flowing in the wrong direction,” in favor of the Islamic State.

“It could still turn around. At this point, it’s impossible to predict how it’s going to play out,” Warren stated, according to Reuters.

Islamic State in control of most of the refinery

Reports from the Baiji refinery confirm that the jihadists are in control of large sections of the sprawling complex. At least “200 policemen, soldiers, and elite special forces” are besieged by the Islamic State, Reuters reported. An officer at the scene said that troops are running low on food, water, and ammunition.

Estimates of how much of the complex is under the control of the Islamic State vary. Iraq Oil Report reported last week that the Islamic State may control up to 80 percent of the refinery. This contradicts what an Iraqi official told McClatchy; he claimed that security forces “control more than 60 percent.” An official speaking with Sky News Arabia has estimated that the jihadist group controls around “90 percent.”

Iraqi forces inside Baiji have called for reinforcements in recent days. The Iraqi government in Baghdad is reportedly sending several brigades to relieve the besieged forces.

The Shiite militia group Kata’ib Jund al Imam, which is ideologically aligned with Iran, has also answered the call for reinforcements. The militia has a number of fighters present at the complex. Additionally, in a video published on the group’s Facebook page, the militia highlights some recent battles with the Islamic State in Baiji.

The US military has also been targeting the Islamic State in the area. Yesterday, US Central Command noted that it launch four airstrikes in Baiji that “struck one large and two small ISIL [Islamic State] tactical units, destroying five ISIL fighting positions, eight ISIL structures, six ISIL fuel tanks, three ISIL vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and an ISIL vehicle.” The Islamic State has continued to advance at the refinery despite US airstrikes.

Jihadists promote successes in Baiji

The Islamic State has seized on its successes at Baiji in its propaganda. In a short video released by ‘Amaq News, the Islamic State’s unofficial news agency, the jihadist group can be seen controlling several areas within the oil refinery complex. Several scenes show the jihadists battling the Iraqi force, which appear to be on the outskirts of the complex. Other scenes show militants walking through the facility while several oil tanks are burning. The Islamic State’s flag is seen flying in various locations.

The Islamic State has released additional material from the battle in recent days. In one photo set, a Syrian suicide bomber, identified as Abu Majid al Shami, detonated on ISF positions on the outskirts of the refinery. In a second photo set, another Syrian suicide bomber, Abu Khalid al Shami, and a Saudi suicide bomber detonated on Iraqi military positions within the refinery complex.

The Islamic State has also released a photo set detailing its casualties. One fighter who was killed was a Chechen commander, identified as Abu Ibrahim al Shishani, who also used to run a training camp for the Islamic State. Another photo set from last week highlighted heavy firefights between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces at the complex.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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  • Broadwing says:

    I find it disgusting that after all the money and blood we invested in Iraq, they don’t have Army units that can fight well. I’m about tired of the whole mess and think we should just get out and leave them to their own devices. Eventually that’s what’s going to happen anyway. The same will happen in that other cesspit of a country we are involved in Afganistan.

    • El Shamal says:

      The answer is that the Army being beaten is not the Army we trained. The Army we trained included Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. It was led by Sunni, Shia and Kurdish officers. When our 2008 election signaled the Iraqis that we were headed for the door, they moved toward the other “strong horse” in the region, Iran. Sunni leaders were forced out or left the government and the Army followed by the Kurds when it was clear that the America era was ending. The Army we trained had substantially disintegrated before IS fired its first shot. It is likely that some of them ended up on the other side but many of the Sunni either fled to the Kurdish area or returned to their tribal areas. The Sunni tribes have split. Some fight alongside the government seeking peace and some fight alongside IS seeking revenge or justice. This same dynamic is being repeated across the region. I was in Afghanistan also advising the Afghan Army. Our partners are tough fighters but they need our support to survive. Sorry its a tough world out there, but failure there means it comes here…no matter what Ron Paul may say.

  • Buzz says:

    Looks like isis has already destroyed some tanks they will need for production of gas and by products? So why would isis destroy a revenue source? maybe KBR will return to iraq and rebuild the refinery for them? ?

  • James Albright says:

    The fact that the ISIS is killing all of their prisoners leaves no doubt that the coalition of forces should do like wise to keep the numbers on the field proportional.

  • rtloder says:

    Same as in Syria, it could be a all out push to overcome Aleppo being surrounded hence Idlib, Tikrit taken Iraq.
    Talk of a Kurdish State is fueling animosity in Turkey, that’s part of it, but the fear of defeat is conquering fear itself, amongst the Jihadist.
    Iran is the only answer.

  • gregkillinois says:

    Maybe someone with military experience can explain this to me. How does an armed group bring lots of people and vehicles across the desert for weeks when US controls the air? Is not this the same air force that could obliterate square miles of enemy territory to allow the Normandy breakout? Are we holding back for some reason.

    • Civdiv says:

      I believe the U.S. only really strikes based on reporting from the ground. They target HVIs, and then front line units that are engaging the Iraqi Security Forces. I doubt they are chasing down stray pickup trucks. Plus, all the flags and stuff ISIS displays on its vehicles are for the video camera. I’ll bet as they move from say Mosul to Baiji or Ramadi they dismount the guns and do not display flags. So from the air it is just a pickup with a bunch of dudes in it. I am guessing here.

      And since the fighting is INSIDE the refinery, not much air power can do w/o damaging the complex forward.

      Now if they had some Apaches, it would be a different matter.

  • Larry says:

    Why should the USAF do anything?

    Clinton used tomahawks like breath mints. He ran down the stocks shooting them into Sudan Afghanistan and everywhere else.

    Sadr in Iraq has threatened to kill American troops in Iraq.

    It is a win win if ISIS and the Shia militia get out through the grinder.

    The Shia militia are going to ethnically cleanse the Sunni anyway. Why should we be part of it?

  • JoeNYC says:

    If you cannot hold a refinery, you destroy it to deprive the Iraqi government of revenue.

    It makes them that much weaker of an opponent.

  • Mark says:

    “I find it disgusting that after all the money and blood we invested in Iraq, they don’t have Army units that can fight well.”

    Fish rots from the head. Is suspect that Iraqi men are brave enough.

  • AL says:

    Funny, back on 17 April 2015 Gen. Dempsey told the world not to worry:

    Iraq’s largest refinery in Baiji is not “at risk” despite an offensive by the Islamic State group that has breached parts of the facility, the U.S. military’s top general said Thursday.

    ISIS militants have “penetrated the outer perimeter” of the vast oil refinery and the U.S.-coalition was concentrating bombing raids and surveillance flights over the area, General Martin Dempsey told reporters.

  • John says:

    “I find it disgusting that after all the money and blood we invested in Iraq, they don’t have Army units that can fight well.”

    We did have. Iraqi SF and Counter-terror units (Sunni) were world class, (or at least regional class) trained by our SF. Problem was, they were Sunni, thus a threat to the Maliki crowd, which fed them to the insurgency by misusing them as regular light infantry until they were all dead or used up. Problem solved from several perspectives if you’re Maliki. He gets his most vicious opponents (ISIS) killed and weakens a potential threat within his own armed forces. The Iraqi SF/Counter-terror units fought well and died well, but it wasn’t the fight they were trained to make and now they’re gone.

  • We are presently witnessing another episode of a reoccurring conflict–Sunnis vs. Shias. Go back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The Ottoman Empire (Sunnis) vied for control of Mesopotamia with the Safavid Persians (Shias), with each gaining control until the other evicted it. It was not until 1638, when Murad IV, finally established Ottoman control, which was to last until 1918. This was followed by the British and French, colonial powers which erected their European-style colonial agendas by drawing borders in the desert where such borders did not exist beforehand. And beginning in 1945, when the British and French could no longer carrying the banner of Western imperialism, the United States stepped up to the plate. And this history has done little to even remotely counter the divide which plagues the two factions of Islam . . . indeed, the argument can be made that imperialism has inflamed the issue.


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