(Reuters) – Iraqi security forces said they advanced to within 2 km (1.2 miles) of the city of Baiji on Wednesday in a new offensive to retake the country’s biggest oil refinery, besieged since June by Islamic State militants.
Backed by Shi’ite militias and army helicopters, government forces have swept through a desert area to the west of Baiji, aiming to recapture the city 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital.
They hope to cut off supply lines to militants encircling the refinery and gain control of a road leading to Mosul, the biggest city in the north, an army colonel told Reuters.
Islamic State fighters seized the city of Baiji and surrounded the sprawling refinery in June during a lightning campaign through northern Iraq. The group also controls a swathe of territory in neighboring Syria and has proclaimed a caliphate straddling both countries.
Government forces inside the refinery complex have been surrounded by the Sunni insurgents who have failed to take it despite frequent attacks and suicide bombings.
The Iraqi government and its allies from the autonomous Kurdish region have been advancing to recapture territory in the north in recent weeks, aided by air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria.
“We have made good advances. We have taken over six villages and now we are only 2 km away from the city of Baiji,” said the colonel, who requested anonymity.