BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Security forces entered Iraq's largest refinery for the first time on Tuesday after months of battling Islamic State militants who had surrounded it, a police colonel said.
Police sources said security forces were clearing out mines from the refinery complex and had moved to an area just to the northwest where they faced some resistance from Islamic State militants. The insurgents still have a presence there.
Complete recovery of the Baiji facility could provide critical momentum for government forces charged with restoring stability in a country facing its worst security crisis since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
"The first Iraqi force, the anti-terrorism force called Mosul Battalion, entered Baiji refinery for the first time in five months," police colonel Saleh Jaber of the Baiji refinery protection force told Reuters.
State television flashed news of the advance and broadcast footage it said was of Iraqi security forces entering the refinery's gate.
"In this area, terrorists were stationed to the left and right. If God is willing, Baiji will be the main key to liberating each span of Iraq," the commander of provincial security operations, Abdel Wahab al-Sa'adi, told the broadcaster.
U.S-led air strikes have prevented the Islamist group, which swept through northern Iraq in June almost unopposed by the Iraqi army, from making significant further territorial gains for its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Islamic State seized the city of Baiji and surrounded the sprawling refinery during that first advance in June.
Islamic State has stolen oil and petroleum products from areas it controls in an effort to create a self-sustaining Islamic empire, oil officials say.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sacked 26 military commanders
this month for corruption in an apparent bid to show the government is serious about improving the performance of the army to counter Islamic State.
The Baiji refinery was producing around 175,000 barrels per day before it was closed, a senior Iraqi official said in June. Iraq’s domestic daily consumption is estimated at 600,000-700,000 bpd.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Angus MacSwan