The top U.S. general says the United States is focusing a lot of airborne intelligence, surveillance, and aerial bombing on Baiji, home to Iraq's largest refinery, which the Islamic State (IS) extremist group has been targeting for months.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on April 16 that IS militants, who already control the northern town of Baiji, have "penetrated the outer perimeter" of the oil compound.
"The refinery itself is at no risk right now, but we're focusing a lot of our ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and air support there," he said.
Dempsey indicated that he is more concerned about protecting Baiji than the western city of Ramadi, where IS fighters were reported to be closing in on the city center.
"I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won't be the end of the campaign should it fall," he said.
Dempsey said that recapturing Baiji would give the Iraqi government control of all of the country's oil infrastructure and deny revenue-generating assets to the IS group.
"So Baiji is a more strategic target and that's why in fact the focus is on Baiji," he added.
Earlier on April 16, reports said about 3,000 Shi’ite militia fighters had arrived in Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar Province, to help defend the mostly Sunni Muslim city against the IS offensive.
The reports came after the deputy head of the Anbar Provincial Council, Falih Essawi, warned that Ramadi could fall to the IS militants within hours.
The reinforcements of Shi’ite militia fighters come from Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces -- a state-sponsored umbrella organization formed under Iraq’s Interior Ministry in June 2014 to confront advances by IS militants in western and northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, government officials in Baghdad said more than 2,000 families had fled their homes in Ramadi, amid fierce clashes between IS militants and pro-government forces on the eastern outskirts of the city.
The IS militants launched an offensive at dawn on April 15 against Ramadi, capturing three villages and advancing to within 2 kilometers of the city’s eastern edges.
The offensive is one of the most serious threats against Ramadi so far by IS militants, who are led by Sunni extremists.