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ISIL attacks Iraq’s main oil refinery

June 18, 2014 at 6:08 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The crisis in Iraq continued to escalate today, as Sunni militants pushed on towards Baghdad and battled with government forces at the country’s main oil refinery.

We have an on-the-ground report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITN: To some, it was occupation, no doubt, but, to others, liberation, Islamic extremists cheered by local Sunnis and parading American supply vehicles through Baiji, after seizing Iraq’s biggest oil refinery nearby

The men of ISIS were in the hundreds and mobbed by well-wishers. “May God support you and bring you victory,” this crowd shouted. One jihadist filmed what he claimed was smoke from a downed government helicopter nearby.

“The refinery in the control of revolutionaries,” he declared. But in Baghdad, the army denied it.

GEN. QASSEM ATTA, Army Spokesman, Iraq (through interpreter): Today, we repelled an attempt by ISIS to attack the Baiji refinery, thanks to God. We foiled the attack, killed 40 terrorists, destroying vehicles full of personnel, weapons, equipment, and ammunition.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Baiji accounts for quarter of Iraq’s domestic refining output. If it can hold onto it, ISIS could provoke an energy crisis, or, by trading fuel, add to the millions it already makes from the oil fields of eastern Syria.

Eyewitnesses said the soldiers defending it suffered heavy losses before surrendering. In Baghdad, though, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, tried to sound upbeat about the setbacks of this last extraordinary week, even if he didn’t look it.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): We have absorbed momentum of the setback and we have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back. We will continue dealing heavy blows to militants.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The prime minister’s fellow Shia are certainly rallying to his call, signing up as volunteers, though the training is lightning quick.

But will this rusty-looking home guard defend Sunni Iraq or just the Shia bit of it? Amid jingoistic scenes like this, Iraq’s army is becoming an ever more sectarian force.

Iraq’s Kurds, too, are fighting for the Kurds, battling to keep ISIS out along the 600-mile border now, not defending Iraq so much as holding on to what they claim is theirs, in a country which still appears to be unraveling, even if its leader won’t admit it.