Islamic State fighters have set fire to oil wells northeast of the city of Tikrit to obstruct an assault by Shi’ite militiamen and Iraqi soldiers trying to drive them from the Sunni Muslim city and surrounding towns.
Black smoke could be seen rising from the Ajil oil field since Wednesday afternoon, Reuters said, citing a witness who accompanied Iraqi militia and soldiers as they advanced on Tikrit from the east. The oil field is about 35 kilometers (20 miles) northeast of Tikrit.
It was the biggest offensive by Iraqi forces so far against Islamic State, which has declared an Islamic caliphate on captured territory in Iraq and Syria.
Control of oil fields has played an important part in funding the Sunni militants, even if they lack the technical expertise to run them at full capacity.
Before IS took over Ajil last June, the field produced 25,000 barrels per day of crude that were shipped to the Kirkuk refinery to the north-east, as well as 150 million cubic feet of gas per day piped to the government-controlled Kirkuk power station.
The outcome of the battle for Tikrit, best known as the hometown of executed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, will determine whether and how fast the Iraqi forces can advance further north and attempt to win back Mosul, the biggest city under Islamic State rule.
The army, backed by Shi’ite militia and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, has yet to reconquer and secure any city held by Islamic State, despite seven months of air strikes by a United States-led coalition, as well as weapons supplies and strategic support from neighboring Iran.
Tehran, not Washington, has been the key player in the current offensive, with Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani seen directing operations on the eastern flank, and Iranian-backed militia leading much of the operation.
Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia expressed alarm on Thursday. “The situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about. Iran is taking over the country,” Prince Saud al-Faisal, foreign minister of the Sunni Muslim kingdom, said after talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
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