U.S. military officials on Wednesday acknowledged that Iraq’s biggest oil refinery is in danger of falling to Islamic State militants and downplayed the refinery’s strategic importance only weeks after building it up.
Less than a month ago, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said “the refinery is at no risk right now” and said that Baiji, the town where the refinery is located, “is a more strategic location” than Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which also is under siege from the Islamic State.
On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren offered a different view.
“The Baiji refinery is threatened,” he said. “Enemy forces have placed a tremendous amount of pressure on the friendly (Iraqi) forces that are in Baiji. The enemy does have control of some of the refinery now. It’s a tough fight. I don’t know which way it’s going to go.”
But he said from a strategic standpoint the Islamic State would gain little from its capture.
“The refinery itself has not been operational for a very long time, nor would it, in our estimation, be able to become operational any time soon,” Warren said. “So I don’t know that the refinery itself will be able to provide any material benefit to the enemy.”
Challenged on that assessment, Warren acknowledged that he was minimizing the importance of one of the largest, if not the largest, industrial complexes in Iraq.
“I am certainly downplaying the significance of Baiji because I don’t, in my military mind, see it as substantially more significant than any other piece of ground in Iraq,” he said.
Control of the refinery has been contested since last June, when the Islamic State began its push across central and northern Iraq as part of its broader campaign to fortify a self-proclaimed caliphate in large swaths of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Until it was shut down by the fighting, it produced 40 percent of the country’s gasoline.
Just Friday, Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and beyond, dismissed Islamic State attacks on Baiji as a bid “to try to gain some type of psychological victory.”
The oil complex came under renewed attack two weeks ago when a surprise attack breached its outer walls, Iraqi officials said.
One Iraqi official told McClatchy on Wednesday that after a weekend flurry of U.S.-led and Iraqi government airstrikes, the militants launched a counterattack Tuesday.
Warren said U.S. and allied warplanes in recent days have conducted five airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants at the refinery but that Islamic State fighters had gained ground in the last 48 hours.
“The enemy has entered the Baiji oil refinery,” he said. “They do control parts of it.”
Still, he said, the battle could change. “These fluid fights ebb and flow,” he said. “Right now it is flowing in the wrong direction. It could still turn around.”
Asked whether the American jets would bomb the Islamic State fighters even though they are inside the refinery, Warren limited his response to, “Yes.”
Iraqi witnesses had said Saturday that the Islamic State controlled half of the refinery and had cut off supplies to the 150 or so government troops under siege within the facility.
An Iraqi officer inside the refinery told McClatchy then that Islamic State militants controlled “all the major buildings,” 80 percent of the watchtowers around the complex and had flanked government positions with “snipers and suicide bombers driving heavily armored car bombs.”
At an April 16 briefing, Dempsey said losing the refinery entirely would be a significant blow to the Iraqi government and its security forces.
“Baiji is part of the Iraqi oil infrastructure,” he said then. “Once the Iraqis have full control of Baiji, they will control all of their oil infrastructure, both north and south, and deny ISIL the ability to generate revenue through oil. So, Baiji is a more strategic target. And that’s why the focus right now is, in fact, on Baiji.”
On Wednesday, Warren did admit that the fall of the refinery would complicate efforts to retake Mosul, the city of more than 1 million people 120 miles north of Baiji that the Islamic State captured last June.
Baiji lies “along the avenue of approach to Mosul,” Warren said. “It will be difficult to take Mosul without Baiji, but not impossible.”