Iran has entered the fight to retake a major Iraqi oil refinery from Islamic State militants, contributing small numbers of troops — including some operating artillery and other heavy weapons — in support of advancing Iraqi ground forces, U.S. defense officials said Friday.
Two U.S. defense officials said Iranian forces have taken a significant offensive role in the Beiji operation in recent days, in conjunction with Iraqi Shiite militia. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
One official said Iranians are operating artillery, 122mm rocket systems and surveillance and reconnaissance drones to help the Iraqi counteroffensive.
The Iranian role was not mentioned in a new U.S. military statement asserting that Iraqi security forces, with U.S. help, had managed to establish a land route into the Beiji refinery compound. The statement Friday by the U.S. military headquarters in Kuwait said Iraqis have begun reinforcing and resupplying forces isolated inside the refinery compound.
Iran’s role in Iraq is a major complicating factor for the Obama administration as it searches for the most effective approach to countering the Islamic State group. U.S. officials have said they do not oppose contributions from Iran-supported Iraqi Shiite militias as long as they operate under the command and control of the Iraqi government.
Friday’s U.S. military statement quoted Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley as saying that over the past three days Iraqi security forces and federal police have made “steady, measured progress” in regaining some areas leading to the Beiji refinery compound, in the face of suicide vehicle-borne bombs and rocket attacks. Weidley, chief of staff of the U.S.-led military headquarters in Kuwait, recently described the oil refinery as a “key infrastructure and critical crossroads.”
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