BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces said they advanced to within 2km of the city of Baiji on Wednesday in a new offensive to retake the country’s biggest oil refinery that has been besieged since June by Islamic State (IS) militants.
Backed by Shiite militias and army helicopters, government forces have swept through a desert area to the west of Baiji, aiming to recapture the city 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital.
They hope to cut off supply lines to militants encircling the refinery and gain control of a road leading to the city of Mosul, an army colonel told Reuters.
IS fighters swept through northern Iraq in June, seizing the city of Baiji and surrounded the sprawling refinery.
Since then, government forces inside the refinery complex have been surrounded by the Sunni insurgents who have failed to take it despite frequent attacks and suicide bombings.
“We have made good advances. We have taken over six villages and now we are only 2km away from the city of Baiji,” said the colonel, who requested anonymity.
IS has used roadside bombs and snipers to slow down the government forces’ progress.
“Since yesterday morning we have defused 300 roadside bombs planted by the terrorists to delay our advance,” the colonel said.
The Baiji refinery was producing around 175,000 barrels per day before it was closed, a senior Iraqi official said in June. Iraq’s domestic daily consumption is estimated at 600,000-700,000 bpd.
Iraqi security forces said they had gained momentum elsewhere over the last week, retaking the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, just south of Baghdad.
Government troops also retook parts of the Himreen Mountains overlooking IS supply lines north of the capital, said another army colonel.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters have also been battling IS in the north, where they have made progress backed by US air strikes.