BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi forces drove Islamic State militants out of a strategic oil refinery town north of Baghdad on Friday, scoring their biggest battlefield victory since they melted away in the face of the terror group's stunning summer offensive that captured much of northern and western Iraq.
The recapture of Beiji is the latest in a series of setbacks for the jihadi group, which has lost hundreds of fighters to airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition in a stalled advance on the Syrian town of Kobani. On Friday, activists there reported significant progress by Kurdish fighters defending the town.
Iraqi security officials said government forces backed by allied militiamen took control of Beiji and also lifted a monthslong Islamic State siege on its refinery — Iraq's largest. However, two military officials reached by telephone in Beiji late Friday said there was still some fighting going on at the refinery, but reinforcements had been sent in and Iraqi forces were poised to retake it.
The security officials said the army used loudspeakers to warn the small number of residents still holed up inside the town to stay indoors while bomb squads cleared booby-trapped houses and detonated roadside bombs.
Also Friday, a suicide bomber tried to drive an explosive-laden bulldozer into a Beiji college used by government forces, the military officials said. The bomber was shot dead as he approached the gate, but still managed to detonate his explosives, killing three soldiers and wounding seven, they said. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Beiji will now likely be a base for staging a push to take back Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit to the south, after government forces tried to retake it earlier this year. That campaign stalled and the city remains in Islamic State hands.
In Syria, meanwhile, activists reported advances by Kurdish fighters against Islamic State militants in the strategic town of Kobani. Reached by telephone, activist Barzan Isso said the situation has improved for the town's defenders following the recent airdrop of weapons by the United States and the arrival of heavily armed Kurdish fighters from Iraq to join the town's defense.
"The YPG made major progress in the Mashta Nour hill that overlooks parts of the city and they were also able to cut the main road leading to Aleppo," he told The Associated Press, using an acronym for a main Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units.
The fighting, he said, was now inside Kobani's so-called "security quarter," an area that houses the town's main police station and other local government offices. The area was captured last month by the Islamic State but the Kurds have recently retaken parts of it.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the fighting was focused on the southern and southeastern fronts, where Islamic State fighters were trying to seize back a road the Kurds recently captured, severing one of the militant group's main supply lines.
As it struggles to maintain momentum on the battlefield, the militant group has redoubled efforts to present itself as a new Islamic caliphate, with plans to launch its own currency in the vast swaths of Syria and Iraq that are still under its control.
A website affiliated with the group said its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has ordered the minting of gold, silver and copper coins for a new currency. The authenticity of the posting could not be independently verified but the website has been used in the past for Islamic State postings.
In Geneva, meanwhile, a U.N. panel investigating war crimes by the Islamic State group said Syrians and Iraqis are subjected to a "rule of terror," with the calculated use of public brutality and indoctrination to ensure the submission of communities under its control.
It said the extremists have denied food and medicine to hundreds of thousands of people and hidden fighters among civilians since the start of the U.S.-led air campaign.
The conclusions from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a four-member panel of independent experts, are based on more than 300 interviews with people who fled or are living in Islamic State-controlled areas and on video and photographic evidence.
"Those that fled consistently described being subjected to acts that terrorize and aim to silence the population," said Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who chairs the panel. He said whatever "services" the group provides to civilians are "always in the framework of this rule of terror," similar to criminal organizations that use such means to control populations.
Commission member Vitit Muntarbhorn told a news conference the report was meant to amplify the voices of victims, who describe executions, amputations, public lashings and the use of sexual slavery, child soldiers and widespread indoctrination.
The group has "become synonymous with extreme violence directed against civilians and captured fighters," the report said.
Humanitarian groups have been unable to reach almost 600,000 people living in the Islamic State-controlled Syrian provinces of Deir el-Zour and Raqqa, it says, and the group has obstructed the flow of medicine, doctors and nurses into a third province, Hassakeh.
The 47-nation Human Rights Council in Geneva authorized the commission to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in Syria and to identify whenever possible those responsible, so that they can be prosecuted.
Meanwhile, five separate bombings in and around Baghdad, all bearing the hallmarks of Sunni militants, killed 38 people and wounded nearly 100 on Friday. The almost daily bombings in the city feed Sunni-Shiite tensions, undermining the government's intense use of the media to drive home a message of sectarian harmony as it tries to enlist the help of Sunni tribesmen to roll back the Islamic State militants.
Heilprin reported from Geneva. Bassem Mroue and Ryan Lucas contributed to this report from Beirut.