Iraq claims to have taken key oil facility – again

The Baiji oil refinery in 2003. The facility is now destroyed.
The Baiji oil refinery in 2003. The facility is now destroyed. AP

Iraqi security forces claimed Thursday to have taken control of most of the nearly completely destroyed oil refinery in the strategic central Iraqi city of Baiji, as a mix of army and militias continued to battle Islamic State forces to end a long struggle for the town.

The Iraqi government has claimed multiple times before to have secured the facility, so the substance or durability of the gains cannot be established. But military advisers and analysts say that even if the proclaimed victory lasts this time, it’s likely a Pyrrhic one.

Heavy fighting that has spanned more than 17 months has destroyed the facility, once Iraq’s largest industrial plant, and conservative estimates predict it will take billions of dollars and years to make it operational again. Once responsible for more than 40 percent of Iraq’s production of gasoline and other refined products, the Baiji refinery has been “completely destroyed for nearly year,” according to one American oil executive who has examined a number of Islamic State propaganda videos from the area.

“It will probably be cheaper and easier to restart from scratch, as there’s really not much left to repair,” said the executive, who asked not to be identified because of ongoing business relationships with the Iraqi Oil Ministry. “But they can’t even begin building a new one until they secure the country better, because no company will send the skilled technicians needed for such an endeavor into this security environment.”

Iraqi officials made the announcement that the U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Force – one of the few combat-effective units still available to the Iraqi government – had taken the lead in clearing the facility and much of the town. But the Iraqi government has claimed at least three times that the facility had been liberated, only to have it slip back under Islamic State control in an area characterized by sympathy for the Islamic State and its predecessor, al Qaida in Iraq.

Any military that required more than a year to capture a small town . . . is not in any sort of position to mount an offensive on (major) cities.

Western military adviser

Bolstering Thursday’s claim was a video circulated on pro-government Shiite militia websites that showed Hadi al Ameri, the commander of the Iranian-trained and -backed Badr Brigade militia, visiting troops and planning operations in what appeared to be part of the oil refinery.

Although the government touted the role of the Counter Terrorism Unit in the operation, Iraqi militia sources said that Ameri had taken control of the Baiji operation, a claim that Iraqi Defense Ministry officials declined to confirm or deny.

Regardless of the ultimate success of the operation, Aymenn al Tamimi, an analyst of Iraq and the Islamic State for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, says that control of Baiji and its ruined oil refinery has little strategic value and that the Iraqi government’s obsession with recapturing it has sapped energy from more important goals, such as recapturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, which fell to the Islamic State over the summer.

He said the Islamic State has used Baiji “to keep government forces bogged down and prevent any momentum gain against IS generally,” he wrote in an email.

A Western military adviser who consults with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government and its military said the long battle for Baiji shows that the Iraqi military is nowhere near prepared for a campaign to retake larger Islamic State cities such as Mosul or Tal Afar.

“Any military that required more than a year to capture a small town – and we’re not even sure they can actually hold Baiji at this stage – is not in any sort of position to mount an offensive on these cities,” the adviser said, asking that he not be identified because of his relationship to the Kurdish government.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero