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May 5, 12:26 PM EDT

Iraq sends troops to key refinery amid Islamic State clashes


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Reinforcements were rushed to Iraq's key Beiji refinery amid heavy fighting with Islamic State militants who have been trying to capture the facility for months, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.

But Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, an Interior Ministry spokesman, denied that the extremists had taken over major parts of the refinery, the country's largest, as some Iraqi media reported.

Aside from its commercial significance, Beiji is on the road to Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and the center of the Islamic State group's power in Iraq. If Iraqi forces hope to retake Mosul, they must secure Beiji.

Ammar Hikmat, the deputy governor for Salahuddin province, where the refinery is located, told The Associated Press that the troops holding the refinery have been battered since Monday by a wave of suicide bombings.

Provincial government spokesman Adel al-Samaraie said militants are in control of at least half the refinery and are seeking to cut the main supply line to the embattled troops.

"They are advancing and taking over many areas," al-Samaraie told the AP, referring to the militants.

Iraqi state television devoted an hour-long program Tuesday to assert that the refinery was still in government hands. Maan asserted that "it is impossible for the militants to take over the refinery."

In recent days, the Iraqi government has decried what it describes as a propaganda war by the Islamic State to exaggerate their advances. The extremist group has issued statements online that it controls most of the refinery.

The Iraqi government said Tuesday that a joint force of federal police and militias, known as popular mobilization units, are working to clear the road to the refinery. Beiji is north of Tikrit, which Iraqi forces captured last month.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in the central Karrada commercial area, killing six people, police and medical officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Baghdad, especially Karrada, which is popular for families at night, has been pounded by car bombs in recent weeks.

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