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Iraq's Abadi Sees Battle for Baiji as Key to IS Ouster

FILE - Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary personnel carry their weapons as they gather on the outskirts of Baiji, June 3, 2015.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the battle over the northern town of Baiji and its refinery — Iraq's largest — was critical to the fight against Islamic State.

The town, about 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Baghdad, has been a battlefront for more than a year since its seizure by the Islamists in June 2014 as they swept through much of northern Iraq toward the capital.

If Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militia fighters regain full control around Baiji, it could help them push north toward the Islamic State-held city of Mosul and offset losses in the western province of Anbar.

"The Baiji battle is a challenge to the heart of Daesh and the fundamental existence of Daesh," Abadi said Monday night, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "Victory in this battle is critical to ending Daesh's presence in Iraq."

Abadi was speaking to military commanders during a visit to Salahuddin province, where Baiji is situated.

A field commander told state television Tuesday that Iraqi forces, supported by militia fighters and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, had regained control of the western suburb of Tel Abu Jarad.

Control of Baiji neighborhoods has changed hands many times during the conflict. Authorities said last month that they had recaptured most of the town, but the radical jihadist group attacked central neighborhoods days later, forcing pro-government forces to pull back.

A police colonel was killed Sunday and four police officers were wounded in an ambush by Islamic State in eastern Baiji, a police source said.

Security forces and militia groups are also fighting Islamic State in Anbar province, the Sunni heartland in western Iraq, but advances have been slowed by challenging terrain, sectarian sensitivities and political tensions.