BAGHDAD — An official from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s office confirmed Thursday that a high-stakes standoff is unfolding at the country’s largest oil refinery, but he disputed details of a McClatchy report that said only 75 commandos were holed up inside and that the government wasn’t sending food or reinforcements.
The Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to make public statements on sensitive military operations, said that up to 1,500 counterterrorism forces are inside the Baiji refinery, a sprawling, 300-acre compound about 150 miles north of Baghdad.
The official said the government is making almost daily food drops and sometimes is able to airlift backup troops to help defend the facility, which he conceded was totally cut off from Iraqi ground forces and ringed by Sunni Muslim extremists and their local tribal allies.
The Islamic State, an al Qaida spinoff group that’s seized vast areas of northern and western Iraq, is besieging the compound in cooperation with some tribes in the area, but it appears reluctant to storm in out of fear of causing irreparable damage to the refinery’s operating systems.
But the militants are taking shots from outside, the official said. “The attacks by the Islamic State and others are almost daily,” he said.
Asked how 1,500 troops have been unable to break a siege imposed by a force that local residents say numbers 500 or fewer, the official said the troops are “responsible for protecting the refinery only.” He said there’s been no “concerted effort to clear the area.”
The official’s account differs from those of residents near the refinery and of an Iraqi politician who’d been briefed on the showdown. The locals and the politician in Baghdad said that only about 75 Iraqi special operations forces were inside, and that the Iraqi government appeared reluctant to fly in supplies and reinforcements for fear the militants would shoot down the helicopters, as they have in other areas.
There was no way to check either version firsthand; roads to the refinery are impassable, and both sides have exaggerated battlefield gains. The official said other details were correct, including the flight of the commander of the battalion originally charged with defending the facility, and he didn’t dispute that the Iraqi forces are cornered, with no clear resolution in sight.
The Islamic State and tribal military commanders at the siege have repeatedly offered the holdouts amnesty and safe passage in exchange for peaceably handing over control of the compound, residents told McClatchy.
One resident who’s worked in the facility and who declined to be identified out of fear of the militants and the government said that storming the part of the complex where the commandos are based was impossible because of the likelihood of catastrophic damage to the refinery.