The Iraqi government has regained full control of a contested and strategically important oil facility that was besieged for days by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the U.S. military said Sunday.
Iraqi soldiers surrounded and entered the country's biggest oil refinery on Saturday, according to senior Iraqi officials, but skirmishes continued. On Sunday, a statement put out by the Combined Joint Task Force — the U.S. military operation in charge of fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria — said Iraq’s government was now in “full control” of the refinery, “having successfully cleared the massive facility of any remaining ISIL fighters.”
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military effort to help the Iraqi government beat back ISIL, has entailed 47 airstrikes over the course of nine days against ISIL targets in and around the facility as well as elsewhere in Iraq.
Holding the oil refinery at Beiji, some 155 miles north of Baghdad, is seen as a strategically vital for the Iraqi government, as the facility accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity.
The refinery produced about 175,000 barrels per day before it shut in June when ISIL fighters seized it at the same time as the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIL still holds.
Iraqi forces retook Beiji in November but have had to fend off many ISIL attacks on it since then.
Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi, the top military commander in Iraq's Salahuddin province, said ground forces entered the refinery Saturday, days after a number of ISIL fighters carried out a large-scale attack and briefly took over a small part of the sprawling complex.
"It is another victory achieved by Iraqi security forces that are growing confident in the war against the terrorists," al-Saadi told The Associated Press.
A day earlier, Iraqi soldiers, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, gained control of the towns of al-Malha and al-Mazraah, located about 2 miles south of the refinery.
Kurdish peshmerga forces on Saturday recaptured two villages just south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that lie near the highway linking it to Baghdad, said Rasould Omar, a senior official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The U.S.-led coalition said its efforts to help the Kurdish forces secured “dozens of square miles” of territory previously held by ISIL.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Friday that two of the dead in a bombing near the U.S. Consulate in Erbil on Friday are believed to be Turks. The bombing killed three people. U.S. officials said there were no American casualties.
ISIL suffered a major defeat earlier in April when Iraqi troops and Shia paramilitaries routed the group from the city of Tikrit, but its fighters struck back at Beiji and in the western province of Anbar.
Thousands of families have fled Anbar in recent days as ISIL fighters encroached on Ramadi, and local officials warned that the city was about to fall.
But two members of the Anbar provincial council and police Maj. Khalid al-Fahdawi, who is stationed inside Ramadi, said Saturday that reinforcements were on the way and the city was no longer in immediate peril.
"The danger is still there, but the situation is better than yesterday," provincial council member Sabah Karhout told Reuters.
In separate violence Saturday, police said a bombing on a commercial street killed three people and wounded 10 in central Baghdad. A roadside bomb missed a police patrol in the capital's western suburbs, killing one civilian and wounding three, officers said.
Police said a bomb attached to a minibus also exploded in Baghdad's southeastern district of New Baghdad, killing three passengers and wounding seven.
Al Jazeera and wire services