ISIL – the battle of Baiji

ISIL – the battle of Baiji

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Courtesy of OpenStreetMap

The following (from this article) is interesting:

“The US spent an estimated $8 billion on training the Iraq army between 2003 and 2012, according to the US army magazine, the Army Times.”

Why am I telling you this? Well, despite all the time and (significant) money put into training Iraqi forces, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have taken over the nation’s largest oil refinery, which is based in Baiji – part of the Salah ad Din governorate. Baiji (sometimes ‘Bayji’) is north of Baghdad. This is a major strategic victory for the militia/group looking to establish a Caliphate. For information about the history of ISIL, as well as their reasons for existence, please read my previous post.

Al Jazeera notes that Hoshyar Zebari (Foreign Minister) stated that Iraqi forces were in control yesterday. The ISIL black flags were raised though. Al Jazeera’s sources also report that hundreds of troops were offered safe passage (by ISIL) to nearby Erbil if they gave up their weapons. This isn’t something that the government would want to report. It’s not exactly positive PR.

The Washington Post states that the refinery was recently on fire – highlighting how fierce the battle for control has been.

According to the BBC, the refinery/complex will be handed over to tribes to administer. This is an interesting decision, given the importance of the facility. However, in some twisted way, it is an example of direct local governance.

RT notes that Al-Arabiya and CNN have also confirmed the news, despite denials from the Iraqi government and ISIL will now continue on their way to the capital (Baghdad).

Why is Baiji important?

Courtesy of OpenStreetMap

Oil can be used for many things – cooking, cosmetics, fuel. ISIL controlling refineries means they can affect the domestic economy, transport infrastructure and partnerships with other nations (according to the CIA World Factbook, 84% of Iraqi exports are crude oil). The partners include the likes of the US, India and China. Whilst they don’t control all the refineries (yet), the one in Baiji is the biggest.

The Baiji refinery is part of the North Refineries Company – controlled by the Iraqi Ministry of Oil. This is an interesting department, but a necessary one when you think of oil’s importance to the country.

2013 estimates show that 64.6% of GDP is industry and oil/petroleum/fuel is part of that category.

The BBC notes that the Baiji refinery is responsible for a third of Iraq’s refined fuel. There has already been fuel rationing as a result of these events.

According to this 2012 presentation, the refining capacity of Baiji is 310,000 BPSD. ‘BPSD’ means ‘Barrels Per Stream Day’ and that is the number of barrels that can be produced by a refinery during 24 hours continuous operation. According to United States measures, a barrel is 42 gallons. Simple maths tell you that means 13,020,000 gallons are produced per day. This page tells you that it’s not the biggest capacity when you compare it to the rest of the world, but it doesn’t make it unimportant.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned to much is the existence of what you see on the bottom-left of the above map of Baiji. That is what remains of the K-2 air base. It is inactive and somewhat neglected at the moment. Not much is there if you you at satellite imagery on Google Maps (there is painfully little information on the current status of this base). However, it has been the scene of major events in the past. It was taken over in 2003, in the early stages of the second Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom). It was the location of the US Camp Lancer (evidence of construction work at the camp) and the place for the first graduation of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps. Although abandoned, having a nearby airfield nearby has some strategic value. ISIL could reactivate in the future. Any military attacks on the base to stop this would be problematic due to the proximity of the refinery.

It is suggested that the population of Baiji is 36,574. When you consider that most of the Muslim population of Iraq is Shi’a, this means ISIL have a large number of local targets (remember the 2004 letter from Zarqawi that I mentioned in the previous post, where Shi’as are heavily criticised).

Finally…

As I have mentioned, Baiji is part of Salah ad-Din. The latter’s name is Arabic for ‘the righteousness of faith’. It seems quite appropriate for ISIL to have influence in this part of Iraq.

Essentially, taking this refinery is a big victory for ISIL during an ongoing battle that will see an increased presence from foreign forces. Taking refineries puts the interests of foreign nations at risk and damages the domestic economy. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer the refinery stays under ISIL control.

So, what do you think?

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