Islamist insurgents stormed Iraq’s main oil refinery, sending oil prices higher Wednesday morning, but leaving conflicting reports as to whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had seized the infrastructure facility or if the attack had been repelled by Iraqi army forces.
CNN quoted Iraqi military officials who claimed the Iraqi army had driven back ISIS fighters who had attacked the country’s largest refinery in Baiji.
However, the New York Times spoke to refinery workers, an oil industry official and other eyewitnesses who said that the refinery was in the hands of the jihadists.
Reuters reported that rebels had seized 75 percent of the refinery.
According to the Times, this is the first refinery to fall into the hands of ISIS, which wants to establish a hardline Sunni Islamic regime in Iraq, Syria and in the wider Middle East.
This amateur video purports to show the area during the attack. TheBlaze cannot independently authenticate the video, but experts tracking the situation in Iraq shared it Wednesday on social media.
The New York Times reported that the refinery's capture could “deny the Iraq government an important source of fuel and provide the insurgents a potentially lucrative income earner, assuming they can ensure the facility's continued operation and sell the fuel, at least in the areas they control."
Iraqi military spokesman Gen. Qasem Atta told reporters Wednesday that Iraqi government troops had pushed back the ISIS militants, killing 40 of them.
“Baiji is now under control of our security forces, completely,” Atta said, adding that government troops were “defeating ISIS in the Baiji area."
News of the assault prompted Iraqi drivers to head out and fill their cars with gas.
The New York Times described the conversations it had with sources on the ground who contradicted the senior military official’s claim that ISIS had been pushed away from the refinery:
A refinery worker who gave only his first name, Mohammad, reached by telephone, said that the refinery had been attacked at 4 a.m. and that workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers. In the course of the fighting, an unknown number of natural gas storage tanks were set ablaze, although it was not clear by which side. After taking heavy losses, the troops guarding the facility surrendered and at least 70 were taken prisoner, he said.
Refinery workers were sent home unharmed by the extremists, said Mohammad, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of retribution.
A lieutenant from the battalion guarding Baiji, also reached by telephone and speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had fled his unit when it became clear that it would not be able to hold out against ISIS forces.
An unnamed oil industry official confirmed to the Times that that the refinery had fallen. Others in the area said they saw ISIS checkpoints around the refinery and that numerous fires had been set.
Crude oil prices were higher on Wednesday morning, according to MarketWatch reporting “the U.S. benchmark pushing back toward $107 a barrel” following news of the refinery attack.
The Associated Press noted that the Baiji refinery “accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity.” The refinery provides petroleum products like gas and cooking oil, used mostly domestically.
Iraq is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC.