Baghdad — Winning the ongoing battle for control of an oil refinery town north of Baghdad is the key to defeating the Islamic State group in Iraq, according to the country’s prime minister.

Haider al-Abadi visited the Beiji area on Monday and met with military and militia commanders.

“Victory at Beiji is crucial to ending Daesh’s presence in Iraq,” al-Abadi, using the Arabic acronym for the IS, said in comments to the commanders aired on state television on Tuesday.

The military retook the town of Beiji from the extremist group in November, but government forces and allied Shiite militiamen there have come under mounting pressure in recent weeks from the militants who, according to a top commander familiar with the situation, are now in control of 50 percent of the town and the oil refinery to the north.

Al-Abadi said the extremist group, which controls large swaths of territory in western and northern Iraq, is throwing significant resources into the battle for Beiji.

“Daesh wants to punch a hole there so our situation, not just in Beiji, but in the entire area, becomes untenable. The collapse (in Iraqi forces) that the enemy wanted did not happen,” he said. “Beiji has become a key front for the defense of Samara, Salahuddin (province) and even Baghdad.”

Samara in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad is home to an important Shiite shrine whose bombing in 2006 by suspected Sunni militants triggered the worst bout of Shiite-Sunni violence since Saddam Hussein’s 2003 ouster.

The oil refinery in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, has not operated since the IS seized the town as part of its blitz across much of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014. There are no residents left in Beiji, which has suffered massive destruction over the past 14 months. However, control of Beiji gives government forces a key foothold for any future campaign to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the IS.

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