Iraqi officials said Tuesday that government forces had captured Baiji after fierce battles for the city, home to the nation's largest oil refinery, but anti-government militants insisted they remained in control.
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled Obeidi issue a statement lauding the military "for the great victory that was achieved in purifying [Baiji] district from the filth of ... the gangs of Daesh," using the Arabic acronym for the militant group Islamic State.
The state news network showed images Tuesday of jubilant soldiers and allied masked militiamen atop columns of Humvees and tanks reported to be going through central Baiji, about 125 miles north of Baghdad, the capital.
Islamic State, however, insisted in a statement on a number of militant and Islamic forums that Baiji remained in militants' hands and that the "battle is ongoing."
Both sides in the Iraqi conflict have falsely touted battlefield advances and denied losses of territory. Restricted access to the Iraqi war zone has made it difficult to reconcile conflicting assertions in Baiji and elsewhere.
Al Sumaria News, an Iraqi pro-government news outlet, reported Tuesday that seven people were killed and another seven wounded when three Islamic State suicide bombers with explosives belts targeted a gathering of Iraqi security forces and civilians in central Baiji.
Fighters of Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot, seized the city in June as part of a lightning advance that saw the militants overrun vast portions of northern and western Iraq, including the city of Mosul, Iraq's second most populous city.
The United States subsequently launched an air war against Islamic State forces in Iraq and neighboring Syria. U.S. bombardment has targeted Islamic State positions in and around Baiji in support of the Iraqi military, as well as elsewhere in Iraq.
Retaking Baiji would mark a significant victory for pro-government forces, who have been struggling to regain terrain lost to Islamic State across Iraq. The Iraqi military is working in tandem with Shiite Muslim militias loyal to the Shiite-dominated administration of Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
The Iraqi forces' capture of Baiji could relieve pressure on the nearby refinery complex, which has remained in government hands but has been besieged by extremist fighters. The Iraqi army has airlifted supplies via helicopter into the vast refinery.
The facility has been shut down as battles rage nearby, leading to fuel shortages in some parts of Iraq. Iraqi officials want to keep the refinery out of the hands of Islamic State, which has profited from a massive trade in black-market sales of oil and refined products.
Securing Baiji could also provide a boost in the ongoing government campaign to retake the nearby city of Tikrit, an Islamic State stronghold and the hometown of Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi strongman still admired among many Iraqis, especially Sunni Muslims. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Hussein, who was captured by U.S. forces near Tikrit and later hanged by Iraqi authorities.
The populations of Baiji and Tikrit are largely Sunni Muslim, a minority in Iraq. Many Iraqi Sunnis welcomed Islamic State's Sunni fighters as liberators from what they view as a sectarian central government and military beholden to Shiite Iran.
The Abadi government, backed by both Washington and Tehran, has vowed to be more inclusive when it comes to the nation's disenchanted Sunni minority.
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan.