WASHINGTON — Radical Sunni militants claimed victory on Tuesday in the battle for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, but Iraqi and Kurdish officials denied the facility had fallen totally into rebel hands.
Al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera satellite channels reported Tuesday that 460 Iraqi security forces surrendered after striking a deal with fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria who agreed to guarantee their safe passage on the condition that they hand over their weapons and leave. The refinery would then be handed over to local tribes in Baiji.
Videos posted on You Tube claim to show civilians in the city of Baiji celebrating the entry of ISIS militants into the refinery, according to al-Arabiya.
But Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the Iraqi commander in charge of security for the refinery, denied that it had fallen to ISIS, dismissing the news reports as “malicious rumors.”
“The Baiji refinery is in the hands of the heroic security forces,” he said in a remarks posted on the website of al-Iraqiya, Iraq’s state-run news service.
Al-Quraishi said Iraqi troops fought overnight with ISIS, killing dozens of rebel fighters. He said airstrikes had destroyed vehicles loaded with ammunition and weapons, killing even more rebels.
Unnamed Iraqi security sources also claimed on al-Iraqiya on Tuesday that a senior ISIS commander, Hossam Samsam, and 12 of his aides, including two of his brothers, were all killed during clashes with security forces in the area south of Tikrit.
An official with Kurdish military forces told a McClatchy reporter on Tuesday that Baiji was half under control of the Iraqi government and half under ISIS control as of Tuesday morning, when he spoke with the garrison by phone. Attempts are underway to reinforce Iraqi security forces there, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The refinery, which produces about a third of Iraq’s total oil output, is located about 150 miles north of Baghdad.
Confusion over the security situation reigned as Secretary of State John Kerry visited with Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq.
ISIS militants have taken over broad swaths of territory in the country, and this week seized border crossings to Syria and Jordan.
In an ominous development Tuesday, ISIS fighters took control of an area south of Baghdad that was known as the Triangle of Death during the American occupation. The move appeared intended to cut off Baghdad from the Shiite areas to the south as ISIS presses on toward the capital city.
At least 1,075 people_mostly civilians_have been killed in Iraq this month, the United Nations estimated on Tuesday.
Another 599 civilians were injured Nineveh, Diyala and Salheddin provinces, U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said.
Colville said the figures are conservative and the actual death and injury toll likely is much higher.
Mitchell Prothero contributed to this report from Irbil, Iraq.