U.S. warplanes have bombed a besieged Iraqi refinery more than two dozen times in recent days as American special forces helped Iraqi soldiers airdrop food, water and other supplies to Iraqi troops trapped in the complex.
News of the airdrop at a Pentagon briefing appeared to confirm reports that Islamic State militants have blocked ground access to the country’s biggest oil refinery, in the city of Baiji, about 145 miles north of Baghdad.
“The Iraqis are under pressure there and have lost some control of the perimeter and some of the road network that leads to it,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday at a news conference at the Pentagon.
One day after U.S. military officials downplayed the significance of the Baiji refinery, which produced 40 percent of the country’s oil before fighting shut it down last summer, Dempsey reaffirmed its strategic priority.
“It’s a part of Iraq’s critical oil infrastructure,” Dempsey said. “It sits on the corridor that runs from Baghdad to . . . Baiji, Kirkuk, and over to Mosul. It actually also sits on a corridor that runs from the Tigris River valley to the Euphrates River valley. And so it’s geographically significant as well as significant economically. So it is a very important place.”
American warplanes Thursday concluded a third consecutive day of bombing aimed at Islamic State fighters at the refinery, he said. U.S. special forces are also helping get emergency supplies to Iraqi troops inside the complex.
“We’ve conducted 26 airstrikes since the 5th of May,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been working with – we call it a mobile training team in Baghdad airport to assist them in rigging airdrops. And just recently, they conducted an airdrop to resupply the force that’s at Baiji, and very successfully by the way. Eighteen of 18 pallets landed on the intended target.”
Intense fighting at the refinery has raged for months, with both sides gaining and then losing the advantage.
Pentagon officials acknowledged Wednesday that Islamic State fighters controlled key parts of the complex.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that he’d met earlier in the day with Masoud Barzani, the visiting president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
“We talked about our progress in the fight against ISIL,” Carter said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “I recognized the sacrifice that all Iraqis have made in this struggle and congratulated him on retaking territory lost to ISIL.”
But he rejected proposals for the United States to send weapons directly to Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Shiite militias that are helping to combat the Islamic State in Iraq.
“I understand that some on Capitol Hill would like to bypass the Iraqi government and directly arm the Kurds and some Iraqi tribes,” Carter said. “But we oppose such a move, because we believe a unified Iraq is critical to the long-term defeat of ISIL and because it could put some of our personnel at risk.”
In Afghanistan, when the United States sent arms to tribal warriors and various militias in 2008 and 2009 some of the weapons were seized by Taliban insurgents and used against American troops.