Iraqi troops and several Iranian-supported Shiite militias have entered Baiji and are vying for control of the central Iraqi city with the Islamic State. Baiji has changed hands twice since the Islamic State launched its invasion of central and northern Iraq in June 2014.
Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias launched a counteroffensive to regain control of Baiji and the nearby oil refinery several weeks ago. Iraqi forces must retake the area if the government plans on wresting Mosul from the Islamic State.
A US official speaking on condition of anonymity told CNN that “Iraqi forces control no more than half of the city.”
A member of the Salahaddin Provincial Council said that Iraqi forces are surrounding the city. The official went on to express concern over the role of the Shiite militias, as well as a possible direct Iranian role in the offensive. The official said that Iranian military missile batteries are located near the city. Additionally, the official confirmed, via US intelligence, that the Iraqi forces and the militias have progressed from the south of the city but are being slowed down by Islamic State snipers and improvised explosive devices.
Al Jazeera Arabic has reported that Iraqi forces are in control of the southern portion of the city and are advancing to the eastern and western portions. The Qatari news agency also reported that fighting is still continuing at the Baiji oil refinery outside of the city. US Central Command (CENTCOM) has announced that three airstrikes have taken place in Baiji within the last 24 hours. The airstrikes, according to CENTCOM, struck two tactical units and destroyed four structures.
The Shiite militias of Asaib al Haq (League of the Righteous) and Kata’ib Imam Ali (Imam Ali Brigade) have published several videos of their roles in the fighting at Baiji. In one video seen below, the white flag of Asaib al Haq can be seen flying in several locations within the city. Other videos from Kata’ib Imam Ali show fighting, as well as militiamen celebrating in Baiji. Other Iranian-backed militias, including Kata’ib Jund al Imam, Saraya al Khorasani, and Kata’ib Saeed al Shuhada, have publicized their involvement on Facebook or have been reported to be involved in the battle.
The Islamic State made significant gains at the Baiji refinery last month after a renewed offensive. The jihadist group was able to take control of several sub-refineries, as well as the northern and southern portion of the refinery. Al Jazeera has reported that the fighting at the refinery has “improved” but did not go into detail of what percentage the Iraqi forces have been able to take back. Last month, it was estimated that the Islamic State controlled more than 80 percent of the refinery. Much of the infrastructure is said to have been destroyed in the fighting. [See LWJ report, Fighting at Iraq’s Baiji oil refinery is ‘flowing in the wrong direction’.]
Iraqi forces have previously gained control of Baiji, only to lose it again to the Islamic State. Iraqi forces and Shiite militias took Baiji from the Islamic State in mid-December 2014, but troops pulled out within a week after the jihadist group surrounded the city and cut off supply lines. Iraqi troops withdrew to the refinery, leaving local police and tribal militias besieged by the jihadists. [See LWJ report, Islamic State retakes Baiji after Iraqi forces withdraw.]
The current offensive to take back Baiji began after Iraqi troops and Shiite militias were able to recapture the nearby city of Tikrit earlier this year. Several Shiite militias, including Asaib al Haq and Kata’ib Imam Ali, played a vital role in capturing the city. The US initially said that it would not support the operation with airstrikes due to the participation of the militias and Iranian forces, but later reversed course. [See LWJ reports, Shiite militias, Iraqi troops enter central Tikrit, US continues airstrikes in Tikrit despite involvement of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and US begins airstrikes against Islamic State in Tikrit, supports Shiite militias.]
The fighting also comes after the Islamic State took over the city of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province. Several Shiite militias, including the Hezbollah Brigades, a US-designated terrorist organization, are leading the fight to retake the provincial capital and surrounding areas.
The use of Shiite militias in Sunni Anbar is likely to stoke sectarian tensions in the province, and may aid the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts. The militias are seen by many Sunnis as agents of Iran, who seek to oppress them. [See LWJ report, Iranian-backed militias lead Iraqi counteroffensive to retake Ramadi.]
Videos from Baiji:
Videos from Asaib al Haq:
Videos from Kata’ib Imam Ali:
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