IRBIL, Iraq — Security forces occupying Iraq’s largest oil refinery remained besieged by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Saturday as American and Kurdish officials warned the garrison probably could not hold out much longer unless relieved.
About 300 Iraqi soldiers — which include about 70 members of the elite SWAT unit of the Iraqi Interior Ministry — were still in control of at least part of the huge oil refinery in Baiji after five days of fighting that has left the storage tanks of the facility on fire and fighters from the Islamic State and their Sunni Muslim tribal allies in control of at least part of the facility.
The refinery, which was evacuated of its foreign and Iraqi workers earlier in the week, produces about 60 percent of Iraq’s domestic production of refined oil products and, if it falls, would devastate Iraq’s economy, which already is forced to import hundreds of thousands of barrels of refined gasoline per day from Kuwait and Turkey. It would also offer a financial boon to the Islamic State should it get the facility even partially online as the government and consumers would likely be forced to purchase any output regardless of who it benefited.
Although the Iraqi government continues to contend that it beat back a major attack by an estimated 500 ISIS fighters on Thursday, witnesses in the area including local media reported that the black ISIS flag could be seen flying over much of the facility, which spans hundreds of acres in the oil town just north of the ISIS-held city of Tikrit.
A U.S. security official told ABC News that the garrison is running low on ammunition, food and water and would be unlikely to hold out much longer as ISIS firmly controls the approaches that the Iraqi Army would have to fight through to relieve them.
Despite claims of an ongoing counter offensive by the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, there’s been scant evidence that Iraqi forces and the Shiite militias that have come to their aid in recent days have begun to retake any territory lost to ISIS.
ISIS took control of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in northern Iraq nearly two weeks ago and since have swept down to the outskirts of the capital facing only limited resistance from a handful of towns that remain in government hands, including Samara and Baiji. But while the advance has slowed in recent days, the government forces have done little to retake the considerable real estate it lost over the last 10 days.
“They were able to drop some ammo and food to the army on Thursday by helicopter,” said a Kurdish security official who did not want to be named because he did not have permission to speak publicly. “But Baghdad doesn’t have the air force needed to keep them supplied or protect them. It will fall soon I think and that will be a big problem for everyone.”
An oil industry consultant based in the Kurdish autonomous region, which has remained peaceful, says that his colleagues are assuming that the facility will fall and that despite Irbil having a small refinery of its own, there will be a lag in supply before Turkish tankers can supply the city through a long overland route.
“Generators, cars and trucks, pumping equipment and drilling,” he said. “All run off the stuff. People are hoarding for a shortage or making sure they have access to the black market.”
After a few days of rationing, Irbil appeared to be out of gasoline for automobiles, with residents deeply concerned about when supplies would become available.
“No gas,” said Ghassan Kahlil, a taxi driver. “I slept in line on Thursday and got some, but today there’s nothing.”
Baghdad residents reported normal gasoline prices and availability but say there’s a run on certain items. Flour prices have nearly doubled and there are shortages of fruit and vegetables for which Iraq relies heavily on imports from Syria and Jordan, two countries effectively cut off from the capital by land.