Iraqi officials claim control of major refinery

BAGHDAD - Iraqi government officials claimed Thursday that Sunni militants had retreated from a major refinery in Baiji after intense fighting for more than two days, but it was still unclear who was in control, and the facility remained shut down.

An Iraqi military spokesman, Gen Qassim Atta, as well as a local official in Baiji said government troops had beaten back the militants.

Eyewitnesses who drove by the plant, however, said the militants' black flags were still flying inside.

Local workers in the refinery who had escaped the fighting said militants still controlled part of the grounds, but government forces were also inside the sprawling facility and controlled slightly more than half the complex.

"The attack ended in the early morning," the local official said. "Government troops now hold the two gates the militants had, and the militants have been driven off the refinery's ground."

The retreat of the attackers allowed about 250 Iraqi workers who had been trapped there to be evacuated at 7am local time. Foreign workers had been evacuated earlier.

"Clashes have stopped since midnight, and now the gunmen are controlling part of the refinery and the towers," said technical worker Hamadi Mohammed.

"The security forces are inside the building, and they control about 60 per cent of the complex. Once in a while we hear gunfire, we hear a few mortar shells exploding around the refinery and residential areas."

He added: "There is no electricity inside the refinery, but the firefighters are there just in case any fire breaks out."

Even if the militants are driven back from the vast plant, which is 209 kilometres north of Baghdad, it will not help the northern and western provinces of Iraq that rely on the refinery for fuel and electricity.

The plant's operators were forced to shut it down this week because security problems had made it impossible for workers to do their jobs. The attackers have besieged the refinery for the past week after most of the surrounding province of Salahuddin fell under their control.

According to some reports, at some point Wednesday or Thursday the insurgents had total control.

A refinery worker reached Wednesday by telephone who gave only his first name, Mohammad, said the refinery had been attacked at 4am local time and workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers.

An unknown number of natural gas storage tanks were set ablaze. The battle in Baiji came as the Obama administration, which withdrew US troops from Iraq less than three years ago, was weighing a more muscular response, including airstrikes, to help the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Even if the refinery were running, it could not ship its products easily to the provinces it is supposed to supply because of the security situation on the roads and damage to one of the pipelines from previous attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the militant group spearheading the current fight across northern Iraq.

In Baghdad, there were two explosion in predominantly Shi'ite neighbourhoods, killing three in New Baghdad, an eastern neighbourhood of the city. In the same area, two policemen on patrol were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb.

On the southern side of the city, the bodies of four unidentified men, ages 25 to 30, who had been shot were found in Abu Tshir, a majority Shi'ite neighbourhood.