BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi military forces reached the center of the northern city of Baiji on Sunday to try to break an Islamic State siege of the country's biggest refinery nearby, according to an army colonel and a witness.
Islamic State insurgents seized Baiji and surrounded the sprawling refinery in June during a lightning advance through northern Iraq. The Sunni militants have captured large expanses of neighboring Syria and now face U.S.-led air strikes.
The colonel said Iraqi troops entered Baiji, a city of some 200,000 people, from the south and west and took over the al-Tamim neighborhood and city center.
Baiji resident Sultan al-Janabi told Reuters by telephone from his house that clashes have been raging since the advance, the first time security forces reached the city center since launching a new encirclement strategy at the end of last month.
The army colonel estimated that Iraqi forces had taken control of about 40 percent of the city center. That could not be independently confirmed.
Iraqi security forces have used helicopters to attack Islamic State insurgents surrounding the refinery.
But months of operations have failed to rescue comrades trapped inside and ensure the strategic site will not fall into the hands of Islamic State, who have used oil and refined products to fund their self-proclaimed caliphate overlapping the borders of Iraq and Syria.
"Violent confrontations are taking place in Baiji right now. I've been hearing continuous fire and loud bangs," said Janabi.
"I keep going up to my roof to peek at the confrontations in the distance and I come down immediately. This has been going on for an hour non-stop."
Late last month, Iraqi government forces tried a new approach. Backed by Shi'ite Muslim militias and helicopter gunships, they circled Baiji from the west in order to retake the city and cut off supply lines to insurgents surrounding the refinery a few km (miles) away.
Government forces, including counter-terrorism units, there have been surviving on airdrops as military forces outside tried to drive Islamic State militants away.
The Baiji refinery was producing around 175,000 barrels per day before it was closed, a senior Iraqi official said in June. Iraq’s domestic daily consumption is estimated at 600,000-700,000 bpd.
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)