- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2015

The U.S. military is focusing its efforts against the Islamic State in Baiji, a strategic oil-refining center north of Tikrit, to cut the terrorist group’s revenue sources in Iraq, Pentagon leaders said in a briefing Thursday.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters there is a “serious” threat to the oil refinery as Islamic State fighters penetrate the border of the city, though he insisted that there is no immediate risk of it falling to the jihadi group. He said defending Baiji was a more critical priority that Ramadi, the west Iraqi city where Islamic State fighters have begun a new offensive even as they have been forced to pull back elsewhere in Iraq.

“Once Iraqis have full control of Baiji, they will control all of their oil infrastructure both north and south and deny [Islamic State] the ability to generate revenue through oil, so Baiji is a more strategic target and that’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji,” Gen. Dempsey said.

Of the 17 U.S. and coalition airstrikes Tuesday and Wednesday in Iraq, nine fell in Baiji, destroying two Islamic State fighting positions and a heavy machine gun, according to numbers provided by the Defense Department.

The general, briefing reporters alongside new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, said the U.S. military is focusing its assistance more heavily on Baiji than on Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province, which reports have indicated could soon fall to the Islamic State.

Ramadi is “not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Dempsey. “I would much rather that Ramadi won’t fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign. Should it fall, we have to get it back.”

SEE ALSO: Iraq PM: Religious tensions could undermine region

While Iraqi government troops, aided by local militias, have been making “deliberate, measured, steady progress” in driving the Islamic State out of towns north of Baghdad on the road to Mosul, Al Anbar province to the west has seen a much more dynamic back-and-forth between the extremists and Iraqi forces.

Recent fighting in Ramadi is “yet another indication that what the government of Iraq really needs to do is connect these ink blots, if you will, of their legitimate security forces so there isn’t this constant back and forth,” Gen. Dempsey said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi intends to increase efforts in Al Anbar province while “maintaining pressure north of Baghdad as well,” said Gen. Dempsey, who met with the prime minister Wednesday in Washington.

Iraqi forces recently retook control of Tikrit in central Iraq, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, with the help of American airstrikes.

Mr. al-Abadi, wrapping up his first trip to Washington since coming to power last fall, said Thursday that ending sectarian violence in the region is crucial to defeating the Islamic State militants in his country, warning that a military campaign will not be enough to secure long-term victory.

“We must not only win the war — we must also win the peace,” Mr. al-Abadi told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Together, we must take action against the political, economic and social problems that give rise to violent extremism, so that terrorism on the scale of [Islamic State] will never re-emerge to threaten our nation and our neighbors again.

Christopher White contributed to this report.

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