Iraqi forces broke the Islamic State (IS) group’s months-long siege of the country’s largest oil refinery on Saturday as the US’ top officer flew in to discuss the expanding war against the extremists.
Completely expelling IS fighters from the area around the refinery would be another significant achievement for Baghdad, a day after pro-government forces retook the nearby town of Baiji.
“Iraqi forces... reached the gate of the refinery,” Salaheddin Province Governor Raad al-Juburi told reporters.
Three military officers confirmed that Iraqi forces had reached the refinery, 200km north of Baghdad, where security forces have been surrounded and under repeated attack since June.
This new success for the government came a day after the recapture of nearby Baiji, the largest town to be retaken since IS-led militants swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland in June.
It also followed another victory earlier in the week in the eastern province of Diyala, where a joint operation by the army and Shiite militiamen wrested back control of the Adhaim Dam, one of the country’s largest.
France, one of the nations taking part in anti-IS coalition air strikes, on Saturday hailed the “remarkable progress” made by Iraqi forces.
A breakthrough preliminary deal reached on Thursday between the federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region on long-standing budget and oil disputes also raised the prospect of increased coordination in the fight against IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
However, with three major cities and a swathe of other territory still in IS hands, the fight is far from over.
The US’ top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, arrived in Iraq for talks on the expanding military operations against the extremists with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and other Iraqi and US officials.
He also traveled north to Arbil and met Massud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region.
A US-led coalition is carrying out a campaign of air strikes targeting IS militants in both Iraq and Syria, and Washington has announced plans to increase the number of its military personnel in Iraq to up to 3,100.
The US and other governments have pledged trainers and advisers to aid Iraqi security forces in their battle against IS.
US personnel are assessing deployment sites, including Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar, a key province that stretches from the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad.
The IS group released an audio recording on Thursday purportedly of its chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after rumors that coalition air strikes might have killed or wounded him.
It has had most of the initiative in recent months, but the man said to be Baghdadi seemed at pains to reassure his followers, and the lack of video in the message failed to dispel speculation he might still have been wounded.
The operation to retake Baiji began more than four weeks ago when security forces and pro-government fighters began advancing towards the town from the south.
Slowed by bombs the militants had planted on the way, they finally entered the town on Oct. 31.
The huge refinery once produced 300,000 barrels a day, accounting for half of the nation’s needs in refined oil products.
It is also on the road linking the two largest cities in Iraq under IS control, Mosul and Tikrit.
Washington has repeatedly stated that it would not deploy “combat troops” to Iraq, but Dempsey said on Thursday that sending out advisers alongside Iraqi forces was something that “we’re certainly considering.”
As federal forces, Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Sunni tribesmen and Shiite militias battle IS on several fronts, near-daily bombings take their toll.
On Saturday, a blast in an area north of Baghdad killed at least four people, a day after at least 17 died in two explosions in northwestern neighborhoods of the capital.
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