US insists IS on 'defensive' despite advances in Iraq

Iraqi soldiers fire their weapons towards Islamic State group positions in the Garma district on April 26, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - Islamic State fighters have gained ground in the Iraqi city of Ramadi and are threatening the country's largest oil refinery but the US military said Friday the jihadists remained "on the defensive."

The IS group's latest advances in Ramadi, where the extremists seized a government compound, did not represent a setback, said Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, chief of staff of the US command overseeing the American-led air war against the IS group.

The general said the IS group had "episodic, temporary successes, but again these typically don’t materialize into long-term gains."

"We firmly believe Daesh is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria," Weidley told reporters in a teleconference, using an alternative acronym for the IS group.

Despite months of US-led bombing raids, the Iraqi army has struggled to gain the upper hand against the IS group in western Anbar province as well as in Baiji, north of Baghdad.

IS fighters had staged a "complex attack" earlier Friday in Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province, and Iraqi government forces managed "to repel most of these attacks but some gains were made" by the jihadists, Weidley said.

The IS group was trying "to consolidate and defend some of their recent, temporary gains in the east and south of the city" while Iraqi security forces continue to control "most of the key facilities" and were disrupting supply routes for the IS in the area, according to Weidley.

Iraqi police said the IS group had seized the government headquarters in Ramadi and raised their black flag.

Weidley could not confirm if the government complex had been taken but acknowledged pro-IS photos posted on social media.

No US troops advising Iraqi forces at al-Asad air base in Anbar province have been evacuated from the area due to the fighting in Ramadi, he said.

Meanwhile north of Baghdad, Iraqi troops were engaged in a difficult fight to hold on to the country's largest oil refinery in Baiji in the face of a concerted assault by the IS group.

The IS militants have "placed continuous, and at times signifcant amounts of pressure on the friendly forces located at the refinery," Weidley said.

US-led coalition aircraft have carried out 165 air strikes over the past month in support of the Iraq troops trying to defend the refinery, he said.

The IS fighters have breached the perimeter and seized control of parts of the facility, and Iraqi forces are being resupplied by aircraft, he said.

Despite the assaults at Ramadi and Baiji, the coalition "campaign is on track" and "the Iraqis with coalition support are making sound progress," Weidley said.