Sunni militants hung their black banners over the watchtowers of the Baiji oil refinery early this morning, according to the Associated Press. The facility, just 140 miles north of Baghdad, is still contested by Iraqi officials, who claim the government is in control and that the militants have retreated.
The battle over Baiji is now into its second day. Late Tuesday night, ISIS militants attacked the refinery and set as many as 17 storage tanks on fire.
A refinery worker told the AP yesterday that Iraqi troops surrendered and at least 70 were taken prisoner. Iraqi officials dispute this. One local official said this morning, "Government troops now hold the two gates the militants had, and the militants have been driven off the refinery's ground." Another refinery worker, Hamadi Mohammed, told The New York Times,
Clashes have stopped since midnight and now the gunmen are controlling part of the refinery and the towers. The security forces are inside the building and they control about 60 percent of the complex. Once in a while we hear gunfire, we hear a few mortar shells exploding around the refinery and residential areas.
Even if Iraqi forces manage to take back control, the refinery has already been shut down. Since Baiji is responsible for domestic production, Iraqis in northern and western provinces will likely experience long lines at gas stations and electricity outages.
In the past two weeks, ISIS militants have captured Mosul, Tikrit, and Tal Afar. They have promised to take Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.
Yesterday, Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari made a clear appeal to President Obama on al-Arabiya TV. "We request the United States to launch air strikes against militants," he said. Obama is still weighing his options.
[Image via AP]