2:12 pm - Wednesday November 4, 2015

Iraqi troops foil jihadists’ attack on country’s biggest oil refinery

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Iraqi government forces battled Sunni militants for control of the country’s biggest refinery on Thursday as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki waited for a U.S. response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.

The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shi’ite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.

Video aired by Al-Arabiya television showed smoke billowing from the plant and a black flag used by ISIS flying from a building. Workers trapped inside the complex, which spreads for miles close to the Tigris river, said Sunni militants seemed to hold most of the compound and that the security forces were concentrated around the refinery’s control room. Iraqi security officials have denied that the plant was close to falling.

The 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters had attacked militant positions overnight, he added.

Baiji, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past week by an array of armed Sunni groups, spearheaded by ISIS, which is seeking a new Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. On Tuesday, staff shut down the plant, which makes much of the fuel Iraqis in the north need for both transport and generating electricity.

ISIS, which considers Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority as heretics in league with neighboring, Shi’ite Iran, has led a Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major city of Mosul last week as Maliki’s U.S.-armed forces collapsed.

The group’s advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shi’ite militias and other volunteers.

ISIS, whose leader broke with al Qaeda after accusing the global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, in effect putting it well on the path to establishing its own well-armed enclave that Western countries fear could become a center for terrorism.

The Iraqi government made public on Wednesday its request for U.S. air strikes, two and half years after U.S. forces ended the nine-year occupation that began by toppling Saddam in 2003.

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