BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi troops backed by Shiite militias recaptured key parts of the northern refinery town of Beiji from the Islamic State group on Sunday, a general said.
The commander of the Interior Ministry's Quick Reaction Forces, Brig. Gen. Nassir al-Fartousi, told state TV that the Iraqi flag was raised over a local government building in Beiji and that troops were advancing to other areas, without elaborating.
The spokesman of Joint Operations Command, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim, said the security forces "are now controlling" the downtown Beiji area, describing the advance as an "important victory."
"The enemy has suffered a defeat and has sustained heavy losses and we hope that the whole city will be cleared within few days," Maan told The Associated Press in a brief interview, saying "dozens" of IS militants had been killed.
There was no word on the fate of the contested refinery on the town's outskirts, but Maan said the capture of Beiji would help Iraqi forces to better secure the nearby Beiji refinery — Iraq's largest oil refining facility and key to the country's domestic supplies.
Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, fell to the extremist IS group during its blitz across northern Iraq nearly a year ago, but the refinery facility has remained contested ground with IS militants and government forces battling for control. The town is also strategically significant as it lies on the road to IS-held Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have managed to roll back the IS group in many parts of the country with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, and recaptured the northern city of Tikrit in April. But last month the IS group scored a major victory by capturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
The IS group has declared an Islamic caliphate in the territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, and has used oil smuggling to finance much of its operations.
In neighboring Syria, the U.S.-led coalition carried out airstrikes against IS positions in the northern town of Souran, which the IS group captured last week from Syrian rebel groups and members of al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrikes occurred Saturday night. The Observatory said the airstrikes killed eight IS members, including a local Syrian commander, and wounded 20.
The coalition airstrikes against IS in Souran were the first in the area since the extremist group launched an offensive last month on the northern parts of Aleppo province close to the Turkish border. IS has captured several villages and towns from the Nusra Front and Syrian rebels.
Since September, the coalition has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against IS in Syria. The coalition has also carried out a handful of airstrikes against the Nusra Front. The U.S. says it has specifically targeted a Nusra Front cell plotting attacks on Western interests.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, says government warplanes have been attacking rebels in Aleppo province, claiming that the "terrorist interests" of President Bashar Assad's government and the IS group are aligned.
In the northeastern city of Hassakeh, government forces have launched a counteroffensive and regained ground lost to the IS group last week, state media said. State news agency SANA said government forces have retaken the power station south of Hassakeh as well as a juvenile prison that had been recently seized by the IS group.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.