ISIS and government forces battle for control of Iraq's largest oil refinery

The loss of the refinery, which is the country's largest and supplies the domestic market, would be a significant blow to the Maliki government.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters/File
The Baiji oil refinery, north of Baghdad in January 2009. Sunni militants attacked Iraq's largest oil refinery, located in Baiji in northern Iraq, in the early morning today with machine-gun fire and mortars, Iraqi security sources and refinery employees said.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Iraq’s largest oil refinery is under attack by Islamic militants northwest of Baghdad, threatening domestic oil and electricity supplies and signaling the rapid acceleration of the group’s offensive against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have surrounded the refinery in Baiji for the past week and laid siege to it late Tuesday night. Fighting between ISIS and Iraqi forces continued this morning, with conflicting reports emerging about who is in control.

Witnesses reported hearing mortar shells and seeing a small fire near the periphery of the refinery, which is located about 155 miles north of Baghdad and processes about a quarter of the country’s oil, all of which goes toward domestic use, reports The Associated Press. A storage tank was set ablaze overnight and the fire has spread, reports The New York Times.

"The militants have managed to break in to the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery," an official speaking from inside the refinery told Reuters.

The New York Times said an Iraqi military spokesman was insisting that the refinery was not in the hands of militants, even as other reports indicated they were.

“Baiji is now under control of our security forces, completely,” General Atta said, appearing on Iraqiya, the state television channel. 

Reports from Baiji sharply contradicted that assessment. A refinery worker who gave only his first name, Mohammad, reached by telephone, said that the refinery had been attacked at 4 a.m. and that workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers. In the course of the fighting, 17 gas storage tanks were set ablaze, although it was not clear by which side. After taking heavy losses, the troops guarding the facility surrendered and at least 70 were taken prisoner, he said.

Refinery workers were sent home unharmed by the extremists, Mohammad said.

A lieutenant from the battalion guarding Baiji, also reached by telephone and speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had fled his unit when it became clear that it would not be able to hold out against ISIS forces.

Iraq has the world's fifth-largest known crude oil reserves, with an estimated 143 billion barrels, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Its oil fields are a plum target; the Guardian notes that  oil resources in Syria “have been a key source of funding for ISIS.” 

Since taking Mosul last week, one of Iraq’s largest cities, ISIS fighters quickly expanded their reach to the south and east. According to the AP:

The attack comes as militants have seized wide swaths of territory in Iraq — and as the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart and the doubts that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion now haunt those trying to decide how to respond….

During the United States' eight-year presence in Iraq, American forces acted as a buffer between the two Islamic sects [Sunni and Shiite], albeit with limited success. But U.S. forces fully withdrew at the end of 2011 when Washington and Baghdad could not reach an agreement to extend the American military presence there.

President Obama has put pressure on Prime Minister Maliki to work with his political foes if he wants to receive US support in the present crisis. There was a “unity” meeting late Tuesday to discuss tensions in Iraq, followed by a joint statement. Today Obama meets with top US lawmakers to discuss options for combating ISIS, possibly including airstrikes, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

However, the US is reluctant to get pulled into Iraq once again. An editorial in Bloomberg View suggests that partnering with Iran may be in the United States' best interest. “[M]ilitary might cannot stabilize fractured states if neighboring powers are working to prevent it…. The U.S. has vital interests at stake in Iraq and very limited options.” 

Nothing demonstrates more vividly the mess Iraq has become than the prospect of Iran and the U.S. discussing whether they can cooperate to fix it….

The least bloody way to stabilize Iraq is for the U.S. to bring all sides -- Sunni tribal and political leaders, Shiites, Kurds -- together to fight ISIL with the promise that the government in Baghdad will offer more autonomy and power-sharing. This strategy is likely to succeed only with Iran's cooperation. The U.S. and Iran will not become friends or allies, but if they can work together on Iraq, they should.

There is a precedent, albeit a brief one: The two countries shared intelligence to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, their common foe at the time, in 2001. ISIL is their common foe now.

Talking with Iran could also help the U.S. solve the problem that is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is currently playing Iran and the U.S. against each other. Both the U.S. and Iran have called on Maliki to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds in order to isolate ISIL, but he is instead militarizing Shiites and relying on their numerical majority to prevail.

Given Maliki's persecution and alienation of Sunnis over the past few years, any successful appeal across Iraq's sectarian divide would have to come from a new prime minister. The Iranian regime is in the best position to convince him of the wisdom of resignation.

The bigger question isn't whether the U.S. should try to work with Iran, but whether it can.

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