More Sunni groups are backing Shia-led government despite widespread allegations of discrimination.
Iraqi forces are battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group on separate fronts, ramping up operations to retake Baiji and Ramadi, two of the conflict’s worst flashpoints.
The Baiji area has seen almost uninterrupted fighting since ISIL swept across Iraq last year, but top officers said on Thursday that the Baiji refinery, the country’s largest, was almost secure.
There were contradictory statements from the armed forces and the allied paramilitary Popular Mobilisation (Hashed al-Shaabi) on whether or not the refinery had been fully retaken.
Senior commanders said it had been “completely cleared” but the Joint Operations Command said late on Wednesday the sprawling complex had not yet been extensively swept by Iraqi forces.
A lieutenant colonel speaking from inside the complex told AFP news agency that troops had rained rockets on ISIL positions there over the past two days.
He said large numbers of wounded ISIL fighters were thought to have been evacuated to nearby Sharqat and Hawijah.
The refinery, which once produced 300,000 barrels per day of refined products meeting half of Iraq’s needs, is said to have been damaged beyond repair and to no longer be of huge strategic interest.
However, the Baiji area is at a crossroads between several key frontlines and officers said there is a push north past the refinery to further cut ISIL supply lines.
“We managed to cut off supply routes and Daesh’s ability to communicate between the areas of Tikrit, Sharqat and Anbar,” said a senior officer from Salaheddin province, using an Arab acronym for ISIL.
High-ranking Iraqi commander Hadi al-Ameri and several others from the Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella organisation dominated by Tehran-backed Shia militia groups, were supervising operations in the area.
Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the foreign wing of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, was reported in Iraqi media to have been the mastermind of the latest Baiji offensive.
Key positions in the Baiji area, around 200km north of Baghdad, have changed hands several times since ISIL launched a massive offensive in June 2014.
Top army officers said control of Baiji is essential to ensure the success of operations against IS in most of its remaining strongholds.
Among them is Ramadi, where security forces backed by Sunni tribal fighters and US-led coalition air strikes have said they are poised to launch a much-delayed assault.
The government resisted for more than a year in the capital of the western Anbar province until ISIL forces blitzed them out with dozens of suicide truck bombs in mid-May.
After what was Baghdad’s most stinging setback this year in the war against ISIL, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Hashed leaders vowed to retake Ramadi within days.
But the ISIL fighters’ sophisticated network of defences using explosives and taking advantage of searing summer temperatures thwarted plans for an immediate fightback.
“We now believe that battlefield conditions are set for the ISF (Iraqi security forces) to push into the city,” said spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, estimating at 600-1,000 the number of IS fighters still in Ramadi.
Iraqi forces this week took up positions just north of the city centre, in a neighbourhood called Albu Farraj, security officials said.
On Thursday, they also moved into Tamim, a southwestern neighbourhood, a police brigadier general said.
“Iraqi forces are coming in as we speak from the south and the west, with aerial support from the coalition and the Iraqi air force,” he said.