At Iraq's Largest Oil Refinery, Siege Nears A Complicated Conclusion

Both ISIS militants and the Iraqi government claim to control the country's largest oil refinery. But NPR's Deborah Amos reports that the rebels have closed in and are negotiating with the beleaguered forces inside.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. The U.N. says today that at least 1,000 people - mostly civilians - have died this month in Iraq as the fighting there goes on. A key battle is centered on the country's largest oil refinery, located in the town of Baiji. It's been under siege by the Islamist militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. ISIS now claims to have captured the refinery. The government denies that, saying reinforcements are on the way. The truth is more complicated. Apparently, the militants are trying to avoid damaging the facility. And NPR's Deborah Amos reports that they are negotiating with government troops still inside.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: For more than a week, ISIS militants and local Sunnis have surrounded the Baiji oil refinery. While they racked up swift victories all the way to Iraq's western border, the strategy at Baiji was different. A truce allowed some 300 workers to leave the plant a few days after the evacuation of a German technical staff. The tactic has been a slow siege says Ben Lando, publisher of Iraq Oil Report. No car bombs or other explosions.

BEN LANDO: And that doesn't work too well at a refinery. And you ruin a multibillion-dollar infrastructure and make everybody around either sick, dead or angry.

AMOS: Local Sunnis have joined the fight, says this rebel, who calls himself Khalil al-Iraqi. He says he was ordered not to shoot into the refinery. It was too dangerous. We reached him by phone through Iraqi sources. He says rebels have penetrated deep into the complex. He explains there has been negotiations with a unit of government special forces troops defending the main office.

KHALIL AL-IRAQI: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: We are talking to the security guys. We told them you can surrender. You will all be safe, he said. The Iraqi government disputes claims of an ISIS takeover at Baiji. The prime minister announced a promotion for the counterterrorism force at the refinery, bumping them up one rank for what he said was recognition of their defense. A military spokesman said an overnight air attack had weakened the siege but not broken it, according to reports from the ground. Re-supply to government troops has been cut off for days and ISIS militants maintain the upper hand, says Lando.

LANDO: I'm not sure how much of it is a victory for them as opposed to a loss of the Iraqi government. This standoff over the refinery took place over a week and half. The moves were almost telegraphed.

AMOS: The refinery is used for internal production, not export. It's supplied about a third of the country's fuel and it may be more a symbolic prize than a financial one for ISIS, says Iraqi journalist Hiwa Othman.

HIWA OTHMAN: It doesn't mean that it gives them the financial base because a refinery needs to be pumped with oil.

AMOS: And that oil has been cut off since the siege began - oil that's under the control of the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad, he says. But now, gas is in short supply with long lines at the pump and rising prices across northern Iraq. It's likely Baghdad will be forced to import fuel supplies to make up for the losses at Baiji, where the battle has already been lost, says Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul.

GOVERNOR ATHEEL AL-NUJAIFI: Now in this situation, both sides don't like to destroy the refinery. So let's take our time.

AMOS: So eventually you think those government soldiers inside will give up?

NUJAIFI: Yeah. That's obvious what they would do. So it will finish.

AMOS: Nujaifi was forced to leave his city on June 10 when ISIS militants swept through town and the Army collapsed. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil.

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