Oil refinery at Baiji secured, but Iraq fighting still rages at Ramadi

Iraqi security forces backed by heavy air support from the American-led coalition have secured Iraq’s largest oil refinery from a determined Islamic State offensive. But they continued to struggle to fend off Islamic State fighters trying to capture the capital of the country’s largest province.

The two battles, one in north central Iraq and the other in the country’s west, are reminders that only a few weeks after trumpeting the capture of the city of Tikrit from Islamist fighters, the primacy of Iraqi government forces is far from guaranteed.

Iraqi and American officials on Sunday announced that the oil refinery at Baiji was back in government hands – a backhanded confirmation that the government had lost control at least partially to the militants late last week. In a statement, the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, said the U.S. aircraft had conducted 47 strikes against Islamic State targets near Baiji over the past nine days.

Even partial loss of the refinery requiring U.S. intervention was a setback for the Iraqis, whose forces had held onto the refinery consistently since Islamic State militants captured the town of Baiji last summer. The U.S. statement suggested that Islamic State fighters remain a threat; it said coalition aircraft were continuing to provide fire and that the coalition was providing “advise and assist elements” to help with operations. It said Iraqi reinforcements and supplies had arrived to “fortify the facility’s defenses.”

Meanwhile, fighting continued in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where at least 20 percent of the city was now in Islamic State hands and nearly 100,000 people have fled their homes.

In response to the growing humanitarian crisis, Iraqi officials Sunday announced the establishment of at least six refugee camps on the outskirts of Baghdad, a move both designed to house the internally displaced and to prevent the mostly anti-government Sunni refugees from destabilizing the Shiite-dominated government in the capital itself.

Besides establishing the camps, Iraq Minister of Commerce Mlas Mohammed Abdul Karim ordered emergency food aid to displaced families that have reached the temporary camps and also ordered that additional supplies of bread and drinkable water be sent into the province itself. According to a ministry official reached by phone, the two orders are intended to persaude residents to remain in their homes.

“We want people to trust in the government and allow the security forces to defeat the terrorists of Daash,” the official said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He said supplies had been dropped by air to people trapped by the fighting. “God willing, convoys of more supplies will reach them soon,” he said. He asked not to be identified by name so as not to be seen as upstaging the commerce minister’s announcement.

The move to address the humanitarian crisis came after additional reinforcements were sent from Baghdad and southern Iraq to defend Ramadi’s provincial government compound in the center of the city, which had come dangerously close to being overrun by the surprise Islamic State offensive that began last week.

The Islamic State advance in Ramadi was a humiliating blow to the government, which after its victory at Tikrit, had announced that its next operation would be to free Anbar province, most of which has been under Islamic State control since early 2014.

One police official based in Ramadi, who refused to allow the use of his name for security reasons, said that Iraqi Army troops as well as the elite Golden Brigade, a counter-terrorist unit under the command of the Interior Ministry, had reinforced the garrison in the city center and had begun operations to retake the considerable amount of the city lost last week.

The deputy commander of the Golden Brigade, reached by phone inside Ramadi, said coalition air strikes in four city districts had played a major role in halting the Islamic State advance. Brig. Gen. Abdul Amir al-Khazraji said those air strikes had increased since Saturday.

“The bombing resulted in heavy damage materially among Daash,” he said.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents in Ramadi and Baghdad contributed to this report. Their identities are being withheld for security reasons.