Battle for Baiji shows how America and its allies have been forced into closer co-operation with Iran and its favoured militias in Iraq
American and allied jets are providing air cover for a coalition of Iraqi forces that includes one of the most feared Iran-backed Shia militias, which stand accused of grotesque human rights abuses, The Telegraph can confirm.
Members of the Imam Ali Brigade are fighting alongside US-trained Iraqi special forces in the battle for the city of Baiji and its oil refinery, Iraq’s largest, special forces soldiers said.
Banners belonging to the brigade were also fluttering at the scene of the battle. The fight is a vicious back-and-forth campaign being fought both inside the refinery compound and the city, and in the desert surrounding them, that has lasted almost a year.
Coalition jets have joined in to bomb Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant positions, both the troops and the Pentagon say.
Iraqi special forces “Golden Brigade” during the battle for Baiji Oil Refinery
“I can communicate directly with the (US) embassy command centre, or even with the pilots,” on of the special forces soldiers tasked to call in air strikes said, as coalition jets flew overhead.
The battle for Baiji shows how the United States and its allies have been forced into closer co-operation with Iran and its favoured militias in Iraq, despite long opposition to the policy, but also how that has become inevitable if Isil is to be beaten back.
Baiji city, on the road from Baghdad north to Mosul, was seized last June as Isil swept through central and northern Iraq. Troops guarding the oil refinery were able to hold out, however, and were under siege for ten months.
The battle raged all through the period – at one point at the end of last year, the army was able to seize back most of the city, but was driven out in an Isil counter-attack.
Then Isil managed to break into the refinery itself in April, just as a relief force comprising army special forces and Shia militia managed to break through to relieve the compound. Now that relief force is trying to encircle Isil in both the compound and the city.
Members of the Imam Ali Brigade are fighting alongside US-trained Iraqi special forces
The jihadists use the frequent spring sandstorms as cover to counter-attack when US jets cannot see their targets. When The Daily Telegraph visited the refinery, a dark smoke swirled from the refinery’s reserve tanks, which the jihadists managed to set on fire when they broke in, and with that and the dust it was impossible to see from where the jihadists’ fire was coming.
Isil tanks were 600 yards away, soldiers said, as the firing came closer.
“Isil is destroying the infrastructure by burning the towers with car bombs, to prevent the reopening of the refinery for many years even if we regain control of it,” Lt Yasser Saleh said.
Last summer, after the Isil siege of the town of Amerli was lifted by a force which included Shia militias, members of the Imam Ali Brigade posed with the heads of Isil fighters, as a form of vengeance for the hundreds of Shia soldiers and fighters executed by the jihadists.
At the weekend, its fighters were accused of responsibility for suspending a jihadist over an open fire to roast him, though its leaders issued a statement condemning the act.
The group spearheads the Asaib al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, a group notorious for its killings and kidnappings during Iraq’s post-invasion civil war, including the capture of the British engineer Peter Moores and killing of four of his bodyguards.
The Battle for Baiji Oil Refinery. has been going on since June last year
Asaib was one of a number of militias accused by Human Rights Watch of running amok after the battle of Amerli, looting and destroying villages, and of more widespread killings and abductions.
The US has said it will back the Iraqi army and its special forces, known locally as the Golden Division. It has consented to militias participating in the fighting, but only so long as they are under the command of the army.
With the majority of forces now militia that appearance is maintained by putting them under an umbrella group known as the Hashed al-Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, which are answerable to the prime minister as commander-in-chief.
In practice, the chief military strategist is Haider al-Ameri, the military leader of the Hashed. He is close to Qassem Soleimani, head of the Al-Quds elite brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Gen Soleimani masterminded the relief of Amerli and the recapture of Tikrit personally, before being withdrawn to Tehran under suspicion that his high-profile role was undermining the Iraqi government.
However, since the fall of Ramadi two weeks ago, he has resurfaced, and at the weekend was once again pictured with Mr Ameri in the desert between Ramadi and Baiji. Another of his Iraqi lieutenants is said to be leading the fight in Baiji.