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Islamic State counterattacks refinery as fight for Iraq swings back and forth

Bodies of Islamic State militants killed during fighting on Wednesday, when Kurdish forces pushed towards Sinjar Mountain, lie in a ditch in Koban, Iraq, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014
Bodies of Islamic State militants killed during fighting on Wednesday, when Kurdish forces pushed towards Sinjar Mountain, lie in a ditch in Koban, Iraq, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014 AP

Islamic State forces began a powerful counterattack Monday to retake the Iraqi town of Bayji, site of the nation’s largest oil refinery. The militants’ assault came as Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish fighters along with heavy U.S. airstrikes continued to pound the jihadist army in northern Iraq.

If the Islamic State eventually recaptures the refinery, which can produce around 40 percent of Iraq’s refined oil products, it would be a devastating blow both militarily and economically for the cash-strapped central government, which had hoped to begin gasoline production this month. In November, the Iraqi government pushed Islamic forces out of Bayji and the refinery.

In contrast, Kurdish peshmerga fighters took control of much of the town of Sinjar on Monday and continued to encircle Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which has been in militant hands since last June. The five-day-long offensive began as an effort to break a partial Islamic State siege of a mountain range north of Sinjar and, Kurdish officials say, it expanded as Islamic State forces withdrew to the cities of Tal Afar and Mosul amid constant air attack.

Both militants and the government Monday claimed to control the refinery complex – and neither claim could be conclusively established as local residents described the area as the scene of heavy fighting before government forces withdrew Monday morning.

“The Iraqi army and Shiite militias abandoned Bayji this morning,” said Abu Ahmed al Tikriti, a local tribal leader reached by telephone. “The Islamic State controls most of the city and the entrance of the refinery but I do not know if they are inside.”

The Iraqi Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but Iraq television stations loyal to the government denied the refinery had fallen and said fighting for control of the city was ongoing.

Social media photographs and videos posted Monday morning by the Islamic States press office showed militant fighters taking control of much of the city – including a key central mosque and government buildings in the city center – but did not show any sign of the militants in control of the oil refinery itself. The videos could not be completely confirmed but were posted from accounts that have been reliably linked the Islamic State in the past.

On Monday, an official with the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia with strong links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a group designated in Turkey and the United States as a terrorist organization, confirmed that his group’s fighters had broken through Islamic State lines. The assault opened a corridor from the Syrian border to the town of Sinjar itself, allowing aid to be delivered to refugees on the nearby mountains and closing what had been a key transportation and logistics hub for the Islamic State linking its two largest cities: Raqqa in Syria and nearby Mosul.

Speaking by phone from Syria, Redur Xelil, a YPG spokesman, said that YPG fighters reached Iraqi peshmerga lines late Sunday night, effectively linking the fronts south of the mountain range for the first time since August, when an Islamic State offensive seized control of Sinjar and threw hundreds of thousands of Yezidis, a local sect considered heretics by the Islamic State, out of their homes and into refugee camps on the mountain and along the northern border with Turkey. Militants captured thousands of Yazidi civilians at the time and reports of atrocities and even slavery have persisted in accounts from survivors.

After pushing down from the village of Zummar, outside the strategic Mosul Dam last week, the peshmerga had taken control of much of the city of Sinjar by Monday morning as Islamic State fighters appeared to withdraw in the face of over 60 airstrikes in the area by the U.S.-led coalition. A statement from the National Security Council of the Kurdish Regional Government, as the autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq is known, said that the rapid gains of last week’s offensive, which has retaken more than 500 square miles of mostly desert and highway from the group, led peshmerga military commanders to press their advantage on Tal Afar, a large town east of Sinjar on the approaches to Mosul.

The statement, signed by National Security Adviser Masour Barzani, son of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, said that at least 8,000 peshmerga fighters had cleared the northern approaches of the mountain range and were pressing to take complete control of Tal Afar and Sinjar in the coming days.

Two McClatchy special correspondents in Iraq, who are not being named to protect them, contributed to this story. One is based in Irbil and the other in Fallujah.

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