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Middle East

The fight for Iraq's Baiji refinery

Iraq's largest refinery has been contested for weeks. "Islamic State" fighters are going after police officers and soldiers near the Baiji facility. Residents who have fled describe the situation in the embattled city.

Ahmed looks completely defeated. He's sitting in worn-out track suit on the floor of an apartment in Kirkuk that doesn't belong to him and is just serving as a temporary home. His wife and three children are scattered among relatives in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We've lost everything," the 35-year-old Iraqi said. "They bombed our house in Baiji, and nothing is left of it." The family managed to escape only with their lives.

Many other residents of the oil-rich city, however, were killed as part of the "Islamic State" fighters' advance. Ahmed said it initially seemed as if the "IS" wanted to do no harm to Baiji locals. After the terror militia's siege on Tikrit on June 12, the jihadists headed to Baiji, located 45 kilometers (28 miles) away, and warmly greeted residents.

"They talked with us and distributed gas, food and candy," he recalled, adding that everything has changed in the intervening weeks after the terrorists found out who were members of the police and Iraqi army. "They are killing us, kidnapping our wives and children and bombing our homes."

Since Ahmed is a police officer, he had to make a quick escape and said he is afraid of being identified.

Two rows of Islamic State fighters Photo via ABACAPRESS.COM

"IS" forces control the refinery's pipelines

Mounting toll

Weeks of heavy fighting have centered on one of the country's largest oil refineries. The Islamist soldiers made a renewed attempt on Sunday at taking the industrial facility in Baiji, advancing from three sides but were repelled by Iraqi security forces.

In June, fighters were able to penetrate the wide-spead refinery complex. But with heavy fighting, government troops managed to drive the terrorists out - resulting in a high death toll. Since then, "IS" forces have mounted a siege that circles the city and control the refinery's pipes into surrounding areas. One pipeline brings oil from sources in Kirkuk to the facility in Baiji, while another normally pumps refined oil to the Turkish port near Ceyhan. Operating the refinery is impossible due to the actions by "IS."

Ahmed said only around 100 members of his special unit of the Iraqi army are left to defend the complex. On Monday, they were again able to prevent "IS" fighters from taking the refinery.

"Usually, the terrorists rush the refinery's premises," a high official with Baghdad's Interior Ministry said of the group's attempts to conquer the facility. But the "IS" fighters are then driven back by gunfire by Iraqi security forces with helicopter support.

Lack of energy

If Baiji weren't the location of Iraq's most important oil refinery, few would know about the city with 60,000 residents. Those who used to drive the stretch from Baghdad to Mosul in the north typically took a break after 180 kilometers in Baiji - to fill up on gas. The fuel came from the local refinery, the biggest employer in the region.

Many parts of northern Iraq depend on Baiji for their energy needs. With a processing capacity of 310,000 barrels of crude oil per day, the refinery took care of more than one-third of domestic energy needs. The plant's failure is having drastic effects in Kirkuk, with its estimated population of around one million. For weeks, the gas stations there have had nothing on offer, and the generators don't have fuel.

Smoke billows near the refinery in Baiji Photo: EPA/STR

Smoke billows near the refinery in Baiji, which has been rendered inoperative

When the power goes out, people are forced to endure temperatures that top 40 degrees Celsius (104 F). Those who can afford it buy fuel on the black market. Street vendors with two canisters - one for gas, one for kerosene - are now a standard part of Kirkuk's city life. A liter costs 1,500 dinars (around one euro), but that is three times the original price. The black market dealers say the fuel is coming from Turkey.

Baiji already became a contested site in fall 2003, after the invasion of American and British troops. It became a hotbed for insurgents, and coalition troops were repeatedly sent to the area to try and ensure peace. At the time, US troops formed a broad ring around the refinery. With the rebels closed off and under heavy surveillance, the direct attacks they attempted met with little success. They turned to sabotaging the pipelines, which are more difficult to protect, and kidnappings of workers increased.

Losing patience?

On January 24, 2006, German engineers Rene Bräunlich and Thomas Nitzschke were kidnapped in Baiji. The two men from Leipzig were released after being held hostage for 99 days. Back then, the rebels with al Qaeda at the helm didn't shy away from bombings at the refinery, but "IS" seems to want to preserve its functionality. The caliphate the terrorists claim to have established is in desperate need of a facility for processing the crude oil it can capture in its territory.

Ahmed's colleague Mahmud - who also doesn't want to give his full name - managed to flee to Kirkuk. He reports that "IS" fighters are now installing anti-aircraft weapons on pick-up trucks with the goal of stopping the flights that supply provisions to the government troops at the refinery.

Mahmud said four helicopters are currently used in such missions: One lands in the inner part of the refinery where the soldiers are located, while two or three other aircraft secure the landing with machine guns. Mahmud said he fears "IS" forces will eventually lose their patience and attack the facility with mortar shells and missiles. That would, however, destroy the refinery.

In his place of refuge in Kirkuk, Mahmud said he feels safe for now. But if the "IS" militia wages an attack here, too, he said would not know where he could go next.

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