December 22, 2014
Insurgents close in on Baghdad, gov't shuts down Iraq's biggest oil refinery
Scores of Iraqis were killed today during a battle for a provincial capital, and fighting shut the main oil refinery, starving parts of the country of fuel and power as an uprising by Sunni insurgents threatens Iraq's survival as a state.
Government forces said they repelled an attempt by insurgents to seize Baquba, capital of Diyala province north of Baghdad, in heavy fighting overnight.
Some residents and officials said the dead included scores of prisoners from the local jail, although there were conflicting accounts of how they had died.Officials confirmed that the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad had shut down and foreign workers were evacuated, although they said government troops still held the vast compound. With the refinery shut, Iraq will have a harder time generating electricity and pumping water to sustain its cities in summer.
The refinery has been protected by elite troops, while the nearby town largely fell to ISIL fighters last week.
Baiji's refinery had stayed open despite years of civil war while U.S. forces were in the country, and the threat to it shows how much more vulnerable Iraq is now to insurgents than it was before Washington pulled out troops in 2011.
ISIL fighters who aim to build a Caliphate based on mediaeval Sunni precepts across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier launched their revolt by seizing the north's main city, Mosul, last week and have swept through the Tigris river valley north of Baghdad. They have boasted of massacring hundreds of troops captured in their advance.
The fighters have been joined by other Sunni factions, including former members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and tribal figures, who share widespread anger among Iraq's Sunni minority at perceived oppression by the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Western countries, including the United States, have urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to rebuild national unity as the only way of preventing the disintegration of Iraq.
But the long-serving prime minister, who won an election two months ago, seems instead to be veering in the opposite direction - relying more heavily than ever on his own majority sect and vowing to purge opposition politicians and military officers he has labelled "traitors".Tens of thousands of Shi'ites have rallied at volunteer centres in recent days, answering a call by the top Shi'ite cleric to defend the nation. Many recruits have gone off to train at Iraqi military bases.
But with the million-strong regular army abandoning ground despite being armed and trained by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, the government is increasingly relying on extra-legal Shi'ite militia to fight on its behalf, re-establishing groups that fought during the 2006-2007 bloodletting.