Tuesday 20 February 2018

Islamic State gathers strength to seize Syrian oilfield

Iraqi security forces celebrate after clashes with followers of Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, in front of his home in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Ahmed al-Husseini)
Iraqi security forces celebrate after clashes with followers of Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, in front of his home in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Ahmed al-Husseini)
Shi'ite volunteers check a vehicle while securing the area against the predominantly Sunni militants from the Islamic State, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in the desert region between Kerbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad. Iraqi insurgents are preparing for an assault on Baghdad, with sleeper cells planted inside the capital to rise up at "Zero Hour" and aid fighters pushing in from the outskirts, according to senior Iraqi and U.S. security officials. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

Damien McElroy

The extremist Sunni jihadist group that declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq has seized control of one of Syria's most important oilfields after fighters from other factions switched their allegiance to support it.

In a crucial strategic advance for Islamic State, the organisation that is tearing Iraq apart, anti-government rebels in Syria who had been loyal to the rival Jabhat al-Nusra switched sides – handing over al-Omar oilfield, which has the potential to produce up to 75,000 barrels of oil per day.

The development represents a huge step up for the Islamic State in its struggle against al-Nusra, which is backed by al-Qaeda but regards the new grouping as dangerously extremist.

It means that the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State now controls a stretch of Syria from the town of Deir al-Zour in the middle of the country to Abukamel on the Iraqi border. Within neighbouring Iraq, to the east, it holds the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, has free rein in Anbar province and is threatening to attack Baghdad.

Saudi Arabia revealed yesterday that it had sent 30,000 troops to reinforce its long northern desert border with Iraq to defend the kingdom against the growing threat from jihadists including Islamic State - formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

The al-Arabiya news channel, which is private but close to the Saudi government, said Riyadh had ordered the troops to the border after the Iraqi side appeared undefended.

The Islamic State's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a 43-year Iraqi, has set himself as a rival to al-Qai'da's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has called on Muslims throughout the world to declare their loyalty. Anti-government fighters in Iraq who joined the insurrection last month were told last week that they must lay down their arms unless they joined Islamic State.

According to eye-witness accounts and social media postings yesterday, Islamic State reinforced its presence in the Syrian oilfield and surrounding area, arriving with US- made arms and vehicles captured from fleeing army units in Iraq.

"Islamic State has swept across Iraq, seized huge amounts of weapons and money and so it's no surprise that insurgents inside Syria would seek their help," said George Readings of the corporate intelligence company Stirling Assynt.

Analysts believe that Islamic State is already making millions from the sale of oil from fields on its territory elsewhere and was the richest jihadist group in existence – assisted by stealing what was said to be more than e300m from a branch of Iraq's central bank in Mosul.

Syrian government forces lost control of al-Omar field to al-Nusra last November and, according to Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, kept the facilities running "selling 10,000 barrels a day".

Video footage yesterday showed a bearded man called Commander Hommam wearing black clothes and brandishing weapons under a sign reading "the Euphrates Oil Company – al-Omar Oil Field". He boasted they took the oilfield without any fighting and that their enemies "fled like rats".

A separate video posted online by activists showed a man in the town of Sheheil, an al-Nusra stronghold, saying: "We have decided to declare our allegiance to the Islamic State and the Caliph of the Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi."

Among the larger groups that defected to the Islamic State in the area were the Army of Islam, the al-Ikhlaas Brigade and the Islamic Taliban movement.

In Iraq, the Kurdish regional parliament in Erbil brought forward legislation to stage a referendum on independence.

Meanwhile, Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said that Iraqi security forces were capable of defending Baghdad but did not have the logisitic ability to launch an offensive and seize back territory occupied by Islamic State. © Daily Telegraph)

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