Islamic militants laid siege to Iraq’s largest oil refinery on Wednesday, threatening a facility key to the country’s domestic supplies as part of their ongoing offensive north of the capital, a top security official said.
The attack follows last week’s capture by militants of wide swathes of territory in northern Iraq and comes as the spectre of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007 now haunting those trying to decide how to respond.
Fighters of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began their attack on the Beiji refinery, some 250 kilometres north of Baghdad, late Tuesday night, the security official said. The attack continued into Wednesday morning, with fighters targeting it with mortar shells. A small fire started on the facility’s periphery, he said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to journalists.
The Beiji refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country’s entire refining capacity — all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things like gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations.
Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq.
Near Kirkuk, which Kurdish fighters took over from fleeing Iraqi soldiers amid the militants’ advance, the Islamic State kidnapped 60 foreign construction workers building a hospital, Turkey’s private Dogan news agency reported on Wednesday. The agency based its report on an unnamed worker who was reportedly freed by the militants.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry could not immediately confirm the report but said its embassy was investigating.
Farther north in the city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, chief military spokesman Lieutenant General Qassim al-Moussawi said government forces backed by allied tribesmen drove out Islamic State fighters from parts of the city they captured Monday.
The capture of the city appeared to be a move to strengthen the Islamic State’s plan to carve out an “Islamic emirate” that covers territory on both sides of the territory.
There was no way to independently confirm al-Moussawi’s claim, but state television aired footage late Tuesday of army troops and armed volunteers disembarking from a transport C-130 aircraft at an airstrip near Ta Afar.
The Sunni militants of the Islamic State have vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since US troops left. The three cities are home to some of the most revered Shiite shrines. The Islamic State also has tried to capture Samarra north of Baghdad, home to another major Shiite shrine.