Middle East Updates ISIS Clashes With Security Forces Inside Iraq's Largest Refinery

Austrian president 'likely' to visit Iran this year; Heavy fighting erupts in Yemeni city of Taiz; Bomb kills soldier, wounds another in Egypt's Sinai; Iraq PM says Islamic State still fierce.

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A view of a Baiji oil refinery, 180 km (112 miles) north of Baghdad, February 19, 2008.
A view of a Baiji oil refinery, 180 km (112 miles) north of Baghdad, February 19, 2008. Credit: Reuters

Latest updates:

10:55 P.M. ISIS clashes with security forces inside Iraq's largest refinery

Islamic State militants clashed with security forces inside Iraq's largest refinery on Thursday and held on to recent gains in the west of the country.

The insurgents suffered a major defeat this month when Iraqi troops and Shi'ite paramilitaries routed them from the city of Tikrit, but are now striking back at Baiji refinery and in the western province of Anbar.

Baiji was attacked several days ago by the militants, who blasted their way through the perimeter and took control of several installations, including a distribution point and storage tanks. They have managed to hold those parts of Baiji.

A source in the military operations command for Salahuddin province where Baiji is located said an Iraqi army battalion had arrived to help defend the refinery on Thursday, and the militants had not been able to take any major infrastructure.

Islamic State sympathizers circulated photographs on social media late on Thursday appearing to show the militants inside the refinery with the caption: "the soldiers of the (Islamic) State advance to cleanse what is left of Baiji refinery."

The images could not be independently verified. (Reuters)

9:37 P.M. U.S., allies focus on Iraq in latest airstrikes on Islamic State

The United States and its allies staged 20 airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq in a period from Wednesday to Thursday morning, the Combined Joint Task Force said in a statement.

Nineteen of the strikes occurred near eight Iraqi cities and hit tactical units, fighting positions, vehicles, weapons and buildings, the statement said.

Another attack near al Hasakah, Syria, destroyed to fighting positions and hit a tactical unit. (Reuters)

8:10 P.M. Yemen tribesmen take control of southern oil terminal

Yemeni tribal forces took control of a major southern oil terminal terminal after military forces protecting it withdrew from the site, local officials and residents told Reuters on Thursday.

The tribal group known as Al-Majles al-Ahli made up of former Al Qaeda militants took over the terminal in the city of Al-Shihr in Hadramawt province, according to local officials and residents in the region, adding that there were no clashes between the soldiers and the tribal forces.

The terminal is one of the major hubs for Hadramout region exporting an average of 120,000 to 140,000 barrel per day (bpd) of crude from fields in the area. (Reuters)

6:32 P.M. Al-Qaida captures major airport, oil terminal in south Yemen

Military officials and residents say al-Qaida has taken control of a major airport, a sea port and an oil terminal in southern Yemen after brief clashes with troops.

The officials say al-Qaida fighters clashed Thursday with members of the infantry brigade in charge of protecting the Riyan airport in the city of Mukalla, a major port city and the provincial capital of Yemen's largest province, Hadramawt.

Al-Qaida overran the city itself earlier this month and freed inmates, including a militant commander, from its prison.

Nasser Baqazouz, an activist in the city, said the troops guarding the airport put up little resistance.

Al-Qaida's powerful local branch has exploited the chaos in Yemen, where Shiite rebels and military units loyal to a former president captured the capital in September and have been advancing despite a three-week Saudi-led air campaign. (Associated Press)

4:48 P.M. 2000 families flee from Iraq's Ramadi because of Islamic State

Clashes between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants pressing their offensive for Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province, has forced more than 2,000 families to flee from their homes in the area, an Iraqi official said Thursday.

The Sunni militants' push on Ramadi launched Wednesday when the Islamic State group captured three villages on the city's eastern outskirts, has become the most significant threat so far to the provincial capital of Anbar.

Over 2,000 families have settled in southern and western Baghdad suburbs. Tents, food and other aid are being sent to them. The ministry is also assessing the situation with the provincial government in order "to provide the displaced people, who are undergoing difficult conditions, with better services and help," said Sattar Nowruz from the Ministry of Migration and Displaced.

On Thursday, sporadic clashes were still underway, according to security officials in Ramadi. The center of the city has been firmly in the hands of Baghdad government forces, though some of the far suburbs and outskirts had fallen to the Islamic State, which last year captured large swaths of territory in western and northern Iraq, along with about a third of neighboring Syria. That blitz stunned the Baghdad government and pushed the country into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. (Associated Press)

3:31 P.M. Heavy fighting erupts in Yemeni city of Taiz

Heavy fighting broke out in and around the central Yemeni city of Taiz on Thursday, residents said, pitting an army brigade and tribesmen against the Shi'ite Houthi militia and allied army units.

The combat opens up a new front for the Houthis, who have been fighting battles with militiamen across southern Yemen, and signals that control over the army by the Houthis' powerful ally, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, may be weakening.

Saudi Arabia and Arab allies have been bombing Yemen for over three weeks to stem the Iran-allied Houthis' progress and have called for defections in Yemen's military. (Reuters)

12:51 P.M. Bomb kills soldier, wounds another in Egypt's Sinai

An Egyptian soldier was killed and another wounded on Thursday when a bomb targeted an armoured vehicle in the Northern Sinai, medical and security sources said, the latest in a wave of violence in a region hit by an Islamist insurgency.

The attack was in the town of Sheikh Zuweid, security sources said. (Associated Press)

12:00 P.M. Austrian president 'likely' to visit Iran this year

Austrian President Heinz Fischer will probably visit Iran this year and may take a business delegation along should Tehran clinch a definitive deal with world powers over its nuclear policy, he told a newspaper.

Fischer, who has a largely ceremonial role, accepted in principle a year ago an invitation to visit Iran in what would be the first trip for years by a Western head of state.

"Now that a framework agreement with Iran exists, a trip in the second half of 2015 has become likely," Fischer told the Wiener Zeitung in an interview published on Thursday.

He said his visit would serve primarily political purposes given Iran's regional importance. It was not yet clear whether government ministers or business executives would accompany him.

"The first step is awaiting a final result of the negotiations. Then we will set a date, and only then will the composition of the delegation be an issue," Fischer said. (Reuters)

3:17 A.M. Iraqi PM says ISIS remains fierce adversary

Iraq's prime minister said on Wednesday that the Islamic State remains a fierce adversary as he outlined plans during a trip to Washington to prioritize battles in the refinery city of Baiji and Anbar province, where the militants are striking back.

Asked whether Islamic State's defeat was in sight as major campaign milestones approach, Abadi was measured, saying the group was on that path, but still showed some resilience and was proving "very mobile."

"They (are) ideologized ... and their backs are against a wall. So they are putting (up) very fierce fighting," he said.

Iraqi authorities believe Islamic State recruitment among foreigners, as a percentage of the entire force, has increased dramatically in recent months, in what Abadi said may be a sign that recruitment among Iraqis was thinning. He said some fighters, presumably of Chechen origin, were heard speaking Russian in intercepted communications. (Reuters)

1:32 A.M. Australian model turned ISIS fighter killed in Syria

A former Australian model who joined the Islamic State group was reportedly killed in Syria, local media reported early on Thursday. (Haaretz) Read full story

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