Iraqi PM says defense of refinery town key to defeating IS

Winning the ongoing battle for control of an oil refinery town north of Baghdad is a key step toward defeating the Islamic State group in Iraq, the country's prime minister said in remarks aired on state television Tuesday.

"Victory at Beiji is a crucial step toward ending Daesh's presence in Iraq," Haider al-Abadi told military and militia commanders during a visit to the area the day before, using an Arabic acronym for the extremist group.

The military retook the town of Beiji from the IS group in November, but government forces and allied Shiite militiamen there have come under mounting pressure in recent weeks. Militants now control up to half of the town and oil refinery to the north, a top commander told The Associated Press.

Al-Abadi said the extremist group, which controls large swaths of territory in western and northern Iraq, is throwing significant resources into the battle for Beiji.

"Daesh wants to punch a hole there so our situation, not just in Beiji, but in the entire area, becomes untenable. The collapse (of Iraqi forces) that the enemy wanted did not happen," he said. "Beiji has become a key front for the defense of Samarra, Salahuddin (province) and even Baghdad."

Samarra is home to an important Shiite shrine whose bombing in 2006 by suspected Sunni militants triggered widespread sectarian violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The oil refinery in Beiji, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, has not operated since the IS seized the town as part of its blitz across much of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014. There are no residents left in Beiji, which has suffered massive destruction over the past 14 months. However, control of Beiji gives government forces a key foothold for any future campaign to take back Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

Elsewhere in Iraq, an army helicopter pilot was killed Monday in Baghdad's upscale al-Mansour neighborhood by an explosive device attached to his car, according to security and hospital officials. The officials and IS, which claimed the attack, identified him as Col. Ahmed Zarzour.

On Tuesday, a major in the Interior Ministry's intelligence agency was killed in a similar attack in northern Baghdad, according to the officials. It was not immediately clear who killed him.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.