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Iraqi forces retake oil refinery, reinforce key city

Iraqi forces retake oil refinery, reinforce key city

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BEIRUT — Iraqi government forces have fully liberated the strategic Baiji refinery from the Islamic State, state media said Saturday, and military reinforcements were reportedly arriving at the embattled western city of Ramadi.

Airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition continued to pound positions, with the U.S. Central Command on Saturday reporting half a dozen new strikes near Baiji and Ramadi, capital of Anbar province.

The Islamic State launched large-scale attacks against the two western targets after being expelled from the northern city of Tikrit, which was retaken by government forces early this month after weeks of fighting.

Thousands of civilians, some waving white flags, have fled Ramadi in recent days as fierce fighting has engulfed the city, situated about 70 miles west of Baghdad, the capital.

Some Iraqi officials are worried that Ramadi will fall, which would mean that most of Anbar would be under the control of the Islamic State and its allies. The predominantly Sunni province was a hot bed of resistance to American forces during the 2003-11 U.S.-run occupation of Iraq.

The Islamic State's offensives demonstrate the group's continued ability to strike, despite setbacks in Tikrit and elsewhere in Iraq. Analysts say the attacks also show how Iraqi forces are overstretched as they struggle to win back the vast stretches of territory lost last year to the extremists.

State television reported Saturday that the militants had been expelled from the Baiji refinery, the nation's largest. Other accounts indicated that clashes were continuing at the sprawling complex north of Baghdad.

The refinery has been out of operation since June, when the Islamic State seized much of central and northern Iraq, including the refinery and the nearby city of Baiji. Government forces retook the installation late last year after a fierce battle, but the Islamic State managed to fight its way through the perimeter again in the past few weeks.

Both Baiji and Ramadi are largely Sunni Muslim cities where many residents initially welcomed the arrival of the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway faction.

Both sides in the conflict view the refinery as a key strategic and symbolic asset.

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