WASHINGTON — Iraqi forces said on Thursday that they’ve beaten back an assault by Islamic militants on the country’s largest oil refinery, but conflicting news reports suggest the battle over the facility is far from over.
Col. Ali Al Qureshi, the head of security at Baji refinery, said in an interview by telephone on state-run television station Al-Iraqiya that Iraqi Army forces responsible for protecting the refinery thwarted multiple attacks late Wednesday night and killed about 70 militants “with God's help and strength.” The rest fled, he said.
Al Quereshi said Iraqi forces remained “fully in control” inside the refinery 140 miles north of Baghdad and “things are normal.” The refinery will resume pumping oil on Thursday, he said.
Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security spokesman, echoed the same reassuring message in televised remarks, saying Iraqi security forces “are in full control of the Baiji refinery.”
But the Associated Press reported Thursday morning that a witness driving past the refinery had seen the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria flying over the facility. The witness told AP that militants from the group were manning checkpoints around the refinery.
And footage from Al Arabiya television station showed smoke billowing over the refinery and the ISIS flag flying from a building, according to Reuters.
The Iraq Oil Ministry issued a statement threatening to sue news organizations, including Reuters and the Associated Press, for “inaccurate” reporting on the battle over the refinery.
As confusion and anxiety grows over the fate of the refinery, gasoline prices are on the rise. Brent crude hit a nine-month high at about $115 a barrel and the average price of gas in the U.S. reached $3.68 per gallon on Thursday, the highest price for this date since 2008.
In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, panic over the possible loss of the refinery has led to huge lines for gasoline in Irbil, where drivers are waiting for hours to fill their tanks. Stations are rationing to 30 litres at a time and some have already run out.
Mitch Prothero contributed to this article from Irbil, Iraq.