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Iran Aids Iraq Fight for Oil Refinery  05/23 08:34

   Iran has entered the fight to retake a major Iraqi oil refinery from Islamic 
State militants, contributing small numbers of troops --some are operating 
artillery and other heavy weapons -- in support of advancing Iraqi ground 
forces, U.S. defense officials say.


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Iran has entered the fight to retake a major Iraqi oil 
refinery from Islamic State militants, contributing small numbers of troops 
--some are operating artillery and other heavy weapons -- in support of 
advancing Iraqi ground forces, U.S. defense officials say.

   Two U.S. defense officials said Iranian forces have taken a significant 
offensive role in the Beiji operation in recent days, in conjunction with Iraqi 
Shiite militia. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter 
publicly and spoke Friday on condition of anonymity.

   One official said Iranians are operating artillery, 122mm rocket systems and 
surveillance and reconnaissance drones to help the Iraqi counteroffensive.

   The Iranian role was not mentioned in a new U.S. military statement 
asserting that Iraqi security forces, with U.S. help, had managed to establish 
a land route into the Beiji refinery compound. The statement Friday by the U.S. 
military headquarters in Kuwait said Iraqis have begun reinforcing and 
resupplying forces isolated inside the refinery compound.

   Iran's role in Iraq is a major complicating factor for the Obama 
administration as it searches for the most effective approach to countering the 
Islamic State group. U.S. officials have said they do not oppose contributions 
from Iran-supported Iraqi Shiite militias as long as they operate under the 
command and control of the Iraqi government.

   Friday's U.S. military statement quoted Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley as saying 
that over the past three days Iraqi security forces and federal police have 
made "steady, measured progress" in regaining some areas leading to the Beiji 
refinery compound, in the face of suicide vehicle-borne bombs and rocket 
attacks. Weidley, chief of staff of the U.S.-led military headquarters in 
Kuwait, recently described the oil refinery as a "key infrastructure and 
critical crossroads."

   The U.S. statement said Iraqis, enabled by the U.S. and its coalition 
partners, have "successfully cleared and established a ground route" into the 
refinery to resupply Iraqi troops. It listed U.S. and coalition contributions 
as including airstrikes, reconnaissance and the use of "advise and assist 
elements."

   Asked about the newly emerging role of Iranian forces in Beiji, the U.S. 
command in Kuwait declined to comment directly, citing "operational security 
reasons." It added that all forces involved in Beiji are "aligned with the 
government of Iraq" and under the control of Iraqi security forces.

   Separately, the Pentagon said Friday that the cost of U.S. military 
operations in Iraq and Syria since U.S. airstrikes began in August is $2.44 
billion as of May 7.

   IS fighters recently gained substantial control over the Beiji oil refinery, 
a strategically important prize in the battle for Iraq's future and a potential 
source of millions of dollars in income for the militants. They also control 
the nearby town of Beiji, on the main route from Baghdad to Mosul, along the 
Tigris River.

   The militants' move on Beiji largely coincided with its successful offensive 
in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, last week. Iraqi forces withdrew from 
Ramadi on Sunday, leaving behind large numbers of U.S.-supplied vehicles, 
including several tanks. The U.S. said Friday that its airstrikes in Ramadi 
overnight hit an IS fighting unit, destroying five armored vehicles, two tanks 
and other military vehicles, as well as nine abandoned tanks and other armored 
vehicles.

   Together, the Ramadi and Beiji losses have fueled criticism of the Obama 
administration's Iraq strategy and prompted the White House to authorize an 
acceleration of U.S. weapons transfers to Baghdad, including expedited 
shipments of 2,000 shoulder-fired missiles for use against armored suicide 
vehicles.

   Iran had contributed advisers, training and arms to Iraqi Shiite militias in 
an attempt to retake the city of Tikrit in March, but that effort stalled. In 
April, after the U.S. joined the effort with airstrikes, Iraqi security forces 
and allied Shiite militias succeeded in regaining control of the city.

   Tony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and 
International Studies, said that while some in Tehran see the advantages of a 
Shiite-led Iraqi government that deals equitably with the Sunni and Kurdish 
populations in order to achieve national unity, Iranian hardliners do not.

   "At best, they are still pursuing a policy of competing with the United 
States for military influence over the Iraqi military and police, Shiite 
militias, and even influence over Iraq's Kurds," Cordesman wrote in an analysis 
published Thursday. "At worst --- and 'at worst' now seems more likely than 'at 
best' --- Iran's leaders are seeking an Iraq where Iran has dominant influence" 
after the Islamic State threat has been overcome.  


(KA)


 
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