May 23, 2015 - 13:09 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - 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, according to the Associated Press.
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.
Friday's U.S. military statement, according to the AP, 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, according to the AP, 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.