Baghdad: Iraqi forces battled the Islamic State jihadist group on separate fronts on Thursday, ramping up operations to retake Baiji and Ramadi, two of the conflict's worst flashpoints.
The Baiji area has seen almost uninterrupted fighting since IS swept across Iraq last year, but top officers said Thursday that the Baiji refinery, the country's largest, was almost secure.
There were contradictory statements from the armed forces and the allied paramilitary Popular Mobilisation (Hashed al-Shaabi) on whether the refinery had been fully retaken.
Senior commanders said it had been "completely cleared" but the Joint Operations Command said late yesterday that the sprawling complex had not yet been extensively swept by Iraqi forces.
The refinery itself, which once produced 300,000 barrels per day of refined products meeting half of Iraq's needs, is said to have been damaged beyond repair and no longer of huge strategic interest.
The larger Baiji area, however, is at a crossroads between several key frontlines and officers said anti-IS forces were pushing north past the refinery to further cut IS supply lines.
"We managed to cut off supply routes and Daesh's ability to communicate between the areas of Tikrit, Sharqat and Anbar," said a senior officer from Salaheddin province, using an Arab acronym for IS.
Hadi al-Ameri and several other top commanders from the Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella organisation dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militia groups, were supervising operations in the area.
Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the foreign wing of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, was reported in Iraqi media to have been the mastermind of the latest Baiji offensive.
Key positions in the Baiji area, around 200 kilometres north of Baghdad, have changed hands several times since IS launched a massive offensive in Iraq in June 2014.
Top army officers said control of Baiji is essential to ensuring the success of operations against IS in most of its remaining strongholds.