The Cable

U.S. Officials Say Key Refinery Isn’t Actually All That Key

Will the Baiji oil refinery in Iraq fall to the Islamic State? Pentagon says it might not matter.

A picture taken on April 16, 2015 shows smoke rising above the Baiji area as Iraqi pro-government forces, including fighters from the Shiite Muslim Al-Abbas popular mobilisation unit, take part in an operation to retake the city's oil refinery from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. The refinery -- some 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of Baghdad -- once produced some 300,000 barrels of refined products per day, meeting half the country's needs. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED SAWAF (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite the recent focus by Iraqi and American officials on the importance of defending and holding the Iraqi oil refinery at Baiji, the Defense Department made a sharp reversal on Wednesday, claiming that the site doesn’t actually matter as they used to say.

The refinery is “not strategically any more significant than any other piece of ground” in Iraq, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

In recent days, Islamic State fighters have breached the perimeter of the facility and established a foothold inside the refinery, though Warren declined to estimate how much ground they now hold or if the Iraqi forces inside were being reinforced or resupplied in any way.

“At this point it’s impossible to predict how this is going to turn out,” Warren said. “It’s been a tough, fluid fight [and] right now it’s flowing in the wrong direction.”

His comments represent a stark change in attitude over the fate of the facility than had been put forth by top U.S. and Iraqi officials as recently as mid-April, when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Washington.

Speaking to reporters on April 16, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey called Baiji “a more strategic target” than places like Ramadi because of the centrality of oil to the Iraqi economy. “That’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji,” he said.

“Once Iraqis have full control of Baiji, they will control all of their oil infrastructure both north and south and deny [Islamic State] the ability to generate revenue through oil,” Dempsey insisted at the time.

But those statements were turned on their head Wednesday when Warren claimed that the refinery has not been operational “for some time” and that even if Iraqi forces fully held it, they would not be able to make it operational “any time soon.”

The U.S. Central Command said on Wednesday that over the past 24 hours the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq launched a series of airstrikes near Baiji, hitting three Islamic State “tactical units,” destroying eight structures occupied by the fighters, and wiping out six fuel tanks and three vehicles rigged with explosives.

Photo Credit: MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images


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