ISIS Torches Oil Field East of Tikrit as Iraqi Army Pushes Mosul Offensive Forward

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Iraqi government forces and allied militias gesture as they hold the national flag in the northern part of Diyala province, bordering Salahuddin province, as they take part in an assault to retake the city of Tikrit from jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, on March 4, 2015. AFP/Younis al-Bayati

Published Thursday, March 5, 2015

Updated at 3:40 am/pm (GMT+ 2): Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have set fire to Iraqi oil wells in the Ajil field east of the city of Tikrit to try to hinder aerial attacks aimed at driving them from the oilfield, a witness and military source said.

Black smoke could be seen rising from oil field since Wednesday afternoon, said the witness, who accompanied Iraqi fighters and soldiers as they advanced on Tikrit from the east.

Before ISIS took over the field in June, it produced 25,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude that were shipped to the Kirkuk refinery, as well as 150 million cubic feet of gas per day piped to the government-controlled Kirkuk power station.

An engineer at the site told Reuters last July that ISIS militants were pumping lower volumes of oil from Ajil, fearing that their primitive extraction techniques could ignite the gas.

Bombing in August damaged the Ajil field's control room, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Ajil lies about 35 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Tikrit. Iraqi army backed by pro-government fighters are advancing through the area as part of a coordinated assault on the ISIS-held city.

Soldiers and fighters are also advancing along the Tigris river from the north and south of the city, preparing for a joint offensive which is expected in coming days. They are likely to attack first the towns of al-Dour and al-Alam to the south and north of Tikrit. Their approach has been slowed by roadside bombs, snipers and suicide bomb attacks.

A senior commander said operations were focused on cutting supply lines of weapons and reinforcements to the jihadists, who seized the city since June. The next step will be to "surround the towns completely, suffocate them and then pounce on them," Lieutenant General Abdel Amir al-Zaidi told AFP.

Zaidi said the operation had already secured areas further out in Salahuddin province and was forcing ISIS fighters to regroup in urban areas.

"The first phase of the battle to liberate Salahuddin was successfully completed — and in record time — by clearing the areas in the east of the province," he said.

A police source in Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is located, said an eight-vehicle convoy of ISIS insurgents attacked Iraqi forces at dawn on Thursday in the al-Muaibidi area east of Alam. The source added that the army returned fire, killing four militants and burning two of their cars.

An online video published early on Thursday purported to show ISIS militants in Tikrit and al-Alam, taunting their attackers.

"Here we stand in central Tikrit, that's the mosque of the martyrs behind us,” the video said. “You claimed, as usual that you raided the Sunnis and their homes and have claimed al-Dour, al-Jalam, al-Alam, Tikrit and others. By God, you have lied."

Tikrit, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Baghdad on the Tigris River, is of both strategic and symbolic importance in Baghdad's fight against ISIS. It is the hometown of late dictator Saddam Hussein, the remnants of whose Baath party have collaborated with ISIS.

Commanders have also said Tikrit is a stepping stone towards an even more ambitious operation of retaking second city Mosul to the north, which has been ISIS's main Iraqi hub.

ISIS using civilians as human shields

Concern mounted Wednesday over the fate of civilians in Tikrit, where Iraqi forces were trying to trap ISIS militants on the third day of a huge offensive to retake the city.

Military operations aimed at retaking the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS have caused around 28,000 people to flee their homes, the United Nations said on Thursday.

"Military operations in and around Tikrit have precipitated displacement of an estimated 28,000 people to Samarra," a UN statement said.

"Field reports indicate that additional displacements are underway and that yet more families remain stuck at checkpoints," it said.

Many civilians fled the cities conquered by ISIS last year, but the group has recently prevented residents from leaving in some cases.

A former army officer who gave his name as Abu Ahmed fled the town of al-Alam with his wife and five children Sunday and said he had to pay a smuggler.

"We left with a 'guide,' a guy who knows the roads. We were five families, and paid him $1,000 (900 euros) each," he said by telephone from Kirkuk.

An Iraqi parliamentary body said on Wednesday that ISIS is using civilians as human shields and preventing them from leaving areas under its control in Salahuddin province.

According to a statement of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, ISIS was hunting down civilians attempting to flee their homes in Salahuddin and trapping them to use them as human shields.

"Daesh gangs are committing new violations and severe crimes against civilians in Salahuddin province," Fadel al-Gharawi, a commission member, said in the statement, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"Daesh has also blocked humanitarian aid to civilians, killed many of them and buried them in mass graves apart from seizing their properties," al-Gharawi added.

He called on the Iraqi government and aid organizations to provide humanitarian aid to civilians who were fleeing Salahuddin province.

Iraq has been gripped by a security vacuum since June 2014 when ISIS spearheaded a sweeping militant offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad. The group also holds significant territory in neighboring Syria, and has declared a “caliphate” in areas under its control.

Iraqi security forces, backed by Kurdish troops, pro-government volunteering fighters, and tribesmen on the ground, have managed to regain some ground from ISIS and push them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala. But they have held most of their strongholds in Salahuddin and taken new territory in the western province of Anbar.

A US-led coalition of Western and Arab states has also carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq since August and has billed Iraq more than $260 million. However, it has not been involved in the ongoing Tikrit offensive.

US commander: Gulf states are funding ISIS

The massacres committed by ISIS and the massive deportation of the local population have sparked international outcry and led to the creation of an international coalition against the group.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu news agency on Tuesday, US Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges urged stronger efforts to cut the financial resources of ISIS.

“For stopping ISIL, we have to dry up their financial resources,” Hodges said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

“They seem to have almost unlimited financial resources, this is coming from somewhere… This has long passed whatever money they stole from bank in Mosul.”

He said that one important financial source of ISIS has been the sale of oil on the black market and argued that some Gulf states were also providing funding to the group without elaborating on the subject.

According to a UN report published in November, ISIS earns an estimated $850,000 to $1.65 million per day from oil sales through private middlemen who operate a fleet of trucks through smuggling routes.

While it did not specify which smuggling routes should be targeted, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for the oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

The experts also identified a growing risk from the plundering of artifacts, especially from archeological sites and proposed a worldwide ban on the trading of antiquities from Syria and Iraq.

The militants gained some experience of dealing in antiquities after taking control of large parts of Syria, but when they captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineveh province in June, they gained access to almost 2,000 of Iraq's 12,000 registered archaeological sites.

In September, officials said that ISIS militants were using intermediaries to sell priceless treasures, such as ancient Iraqi artifacts, on the black market to finance their activities.

Last Thursday, ISIS released a video in which its militants were seen smashing ancient statues and attacking artifacts to pieces with sledgehammers in the main museum in Mosul, saying they were symbols of idolatry.

However, British Channel 4 News reported that at least several statues shown in a video depicting ISIS militants destroying the artifacts were in fact copies.

Hodges also urged Muslim scholars to take more action in the fight against ISIS.

“This is not Islam. But when an American or a Western national says it, this is not as compelling as when respected Islamic scholars or officials say it,” he said, emphasizing that only respected Muslim scholars and leaders could effectively counter ISIS propaganda towards young Muslims.

Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by financing, arming and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

(AFP, Reuters, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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