BAGHDAD — Refinery workers, witnesses, and an Iraqi army officer reported the seizure of Iraq’s biggest oil refinery by Sunni extremists Wednesday after army helicopter gunships failed to repel their attack.
But other Iraqi officials, including the commander of the garrison defending the refinery in Baiji, asserted that fighting was still going on inside the extensive facility, which was shut down by the violence.
The battle in Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad, came as the Obama administration, which extricated US troops from Iraq less than three years ago, was weighing a more muscular response, including airstrikes, to help the besieged government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday in Saudi Arabia that Iraq had asked for US airstrikes, according to Al Arabiya television. That would make Zebari the first top Iraqi official to publicly confirm that request, reported by The New York Times last week.
If the insurgent takeover of Baiji is confirmed, the facility would be the first operating refinery to fall to the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria who have swept through much of northern Iraq. They have surrounded the refinery in Baiji for the past week, fighting a battalion of the Iraqi army that had been backed by air support.
The loss of the refinery could deny the Iraq government an important source of fuel and provide the insurgents with a potentially lucrative source of income, assuming that they can ensure its continued operation and sell the fuel, at least in the areas they control. The Islamic State already profits from its control of oil resources in eastern Syria.
In a televised statement, an Iraqi military spokesman, General Qassim Atta, denied that the Baiji refinery had fallen.
“Baiji is now under control of our security forces, completely,” Atta said, appearing on Iraqiya, the state television channel, hours after militant fighters had apparently taken over the refinery.
A local government official in Baiji, and the army commander in charge of defending the refinery, also insisted that Iraqi authorities were still in control, although they conceded that militant fighters had invaded the facility and controlled two of the four main entrances.
“We are fine; we are still inside the refinery and we are fighting,” said Brigadier General Arras Abdul Qadir, the commander of the troops guarding the refinery, reached by telephone Wednesday. Asked how long his troops could hold out, he said, “We will see.”
Other accounts from Baiji said the insurgents had total control. A refinery worker reached by telephone who gave only his first name, Mohammad, said the refinery had been attacked at 4 a.m. and workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers. An unknown number of natural gas storage tanks were set ablaze. After taking heavy losses, the troops guarding the facility surrendered, at least 70 were taken prisoner, and the refinery workers were sent home unharmed, he said.
An Iraqi army lieutenant from Baiji, also reached by telephone and speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he had fled his unit when it became clear that it would not be able to resist the Islamic State’s forces.
Eyewitnesses in the area also reported seeing militant checkpoints controlling access to the sprawling refinery area and smoke rising over the complex from numerous fires.
The attackers had besieged the refinery for the past week, after most of the surrounding Salahuddin province had fallen under their control.
Atta, in his televised statement, said Iraqi forces were continuing to fight in Baiji, and he praised the efforts of one air force pilot in particular in staving off the insurgents.
“The air force is in the battle against them, with the support from the Golden Division of the special forces,” he said, referring to an elite unit that is reportedly under the prime minister’s direct control.
“We will continue our operations, and we will not let anyone from ISIS take one foot of our lands,” he said.
Atta also said Iraqi forces were making gains in several areas in Salahuddin and Nineveh and had retaken the city of Tal Afar, which was reported to have fallen to the militants Monday.
He depicted a military situation that contradicted most reports from the field so far, saying that Iraqi forces had regained the initiative.
“Now our forces are becoming stronger,” he said. “Now we are the ones who are taking the initiative and making the attacks, instead of defending.”
So far, the fighting has largely been isolated to cities in the north, including Mosul and Tikrit, where Islamic State fighters have taken control.