“The Baiji battle is a challenge to the heart of Daesh and the fundamental existence of Daesh,” said Iraq prime minister Haider al-Abadi, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State on Monday, according to Reuters. “Victory in this battle is critical to ending Daesh’s presence in Iraq.”
But Abadi’s remarks regarding the importance of Baiji seem to run counter to current operations in the country, as the brunt of coalition airstrikes and Iraqi efforts are concentrated on the retaking of the southern city of Ramadi in Anbar Province.
Ramadi, which fell earlier this summer to the Islamic State, has been the focus of a now month-long Iraqi counter-attack that is still in its early stages, according to Marine Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, the chief of staff for the U.S. led operation in the country.
“It’s a difficult fight to say the least,” Killea told reporters Friday. “Some days one axis will advance significantly and the next day that same axis will be delayed by heavy contact with enemy or by obstacles.”
Though roughly 100 miles south of Mosul and of apparent emotional importance in the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State, both the city of Baiji and the refinery could be bypassed entirely if necessary to retake Mosul. This is due in part to its relatively isolated position in the region. Additionally, while the refinery was once an important piece of infrastructure, a year’s worth of fighting has left the refinery’s ability to operate in question.
For now it remains a battleground, that if anything, consumes the resources and troops of both the Iraqi security forces and the Islamic State.
“The situation [in Baiji] remains hotly contested,” Killea told reporters Friday. “The [Iraqi Security Forces] continue to position forces in an attempt to gain an advantage in the oil refinery to the north of the city.”
Killea defined the daily situation at the refinery as one of “attack and counter attack” where U.S. and coalition airstrikes are helping the beleaguered Iraqi ground forces ward off Islamic State offensives.
Despite coalition efforts, Iraqi forces have only secured a third of the refinery and 80 percent of the city itself, according to Killea.
“Like I said, it’s a hotly contested fight,” he said.
Killea partially attributed the slow place to the abundance of improvised explosive devices left behind by the Islamic State and the efforts required to clear them, while Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday that the lack of progress was because of Iraqi forces attempting to avoid civilian casualties.