WASHINGTON — Losing the capital of Iraq's western Anbar province to advancing Islamic State forces would be a tragic but not crippling blow to Iraq's counteroffensive, the top U.S. military officer said Thursday.
A more vital battleground is to the north at Beiji, home to a major oil refinery that the Islamic State group has been targeting for months, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Dempsey said IS fighters, who already control the town of Beiji, have "penetrated the outer perimeter" of the sprawling oil compound. He said, however, that the refinery itself is "at no risk right now."
The U.S. is focusing a lot of airborne intelligence, surveillance and aerial bombing on Beiji, said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In its daily list of targets struck by U.S. warplanes, the U.S. military said Thursday that eight of 19 airstrikes in Iraq overnight were in the Beiji area. Two large and four smaller IS military units were hit there, as well as an IS mortar system, an IS fighting position and a vehicle. That followed nine airstrikes near Beiji the day before.
Beiji is north of the city of Tikrit, where Iraqi forces scored the biggest success of their counteroffensive by retaking control of the city earlier this month.
Dempsey indicated that he is more concerned about protecting Beiji than Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province where Islamic State fighters were reported Thursday to be closing in on the city center and turning it into a ghost town.
Dempsey, who served multiple tours in Iraq during the 2003-2011 war, said the latest IS advance on Ramadi is an indication that the Iraqi government needs to connect what he called "ink blots," or pockets of Iraqi government control across the Anbar province, in order to deny IS future gains.
He said this was a topic of his discussions Wednesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been in Washington this week to consult on the counter-IS campaign and to request more heavy weapons from the U.S.
"It is his intent to focus now on Anbar province," Dempsey said.
Dempsey said Ramadi is a humanitarian problem because many residents have become refugees by fleeing to Baghdad.
"The city itself is not symbolic is any way," Dempsey said. "It's not been declared part of the (Islamic State) caliphate or central to the future of Iraq, but we want to get it back. The issue here is not brick and mortar, it's about defeating ISIL. I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won't be the end of the campaign should it fall — we've got to get it back, and that's tragic for the people."
He called Beiji "a little different" because of the presence there of the oil refinery. Recapturing Beiji would give the Iraqi government control of all of the country's oil infrastructure and deny revenue-generating assets to IS, Dempsey said. Black market sales of oil and oil products have been a major source of revenue for the Islamic State, particularly in areas of Syria that it controls.
"So Beiji is a more strategic target and that's why in fact the focus is on Beiji," Dempsey said.
Al-Abadi told reporters Wednesday in Washington that Beiji is a priority for the counteroffensive because Iraqi forces need to have control of the road system north to Mosul before launching an offensive to retake Mosul, which is the Islamic State's main base of power in the north.
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