BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces drove Islamic State militants out of the strategic oil refinery town of Beiji on Friday, handing a major defeat to the extremist group, which a U.N. panel said has denied food and medicine to hundreds of thousands of people and hidden its fighters among civilians since the start of a U.S.-led air campaign.
The recapture of Beiji is the latest in a series of setbacks for the jihadi group, which has lost hundreds of fighters to airstrikes in a stalled advance on the Syrian town of Kobani and whose leader was reportedly wounded in an airstrike earlier this month.
But as it has struggled to maintain momentum on the battlefield, it has redoubled efforts to present itself as a new Islamic caliphate, with plans to launch its own currency in the vast swaths of Syria and Iraq that are still under its control.
Two Iraqi security officials said government forces backed by allied militiamen captured the town of Beiji and lifted a months-long Islamic State siege on the refinery itself -- Iraq's largest -- hoisting the country's red, white and black flags atop the sprawling complex.
Reached by telephone in Beiji, they said the army used loudspeakers to warn the small number of residents still holed up in the town to stay indoors while bomb squads cleared booby-trapped houses and detonated roadside bombs.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
State-run television also reported the "liberation" of Beiji, quoting the top army commander there, Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi.
Islamic State extremists captured Beiji during the summer offensive in which they swept across much of northern Iraq and captured its second largest city Mosul. The Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of the onslaught but have since partially regrouped and gone on the offensive, with Beiji the biggest locality they have recaptured to date.
The Iraqi military has since been aided by U.S.-led airstrikes targeting Islamic State positions in Iraq and in neighboring Syria.
The two officials said fierce battles were fought early on Friday around the refinery and that government warplanes strafed Islamic State positions around the facility. The refinery's capacity of some 320,000 barrels a day accounts for a quarter of Iraq's refining capacity.
Video footage from Beiji aired on state television this week showed large-scale destruction in the city center, with many buildings badly damaged or completely destroyed. One clip showed Gen. al-Saadi, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, walking triumphantly to the headquarters of the local government at the town center.
Beiji will now likely be a base for staging a push to take back Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit to the south. Government forces tried to retake Tikrit earlier this year, but their campaign stalled and the city remains in Islamic State hands.
In Geneva, a U.N. panel investigating war crimes in Syria said Syrians and Iraqis are subjected to an Islamic State "rule of terror," with the calculated use of public brutality and indoctrination to ensure the submission of communities under its control.
The conclusions from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a four-member panel of independent experts, are based on more than 300 interviews with people who fled or are living in IS-controlled areas and on video and photographic evidence.
"Those that fled consistently described being subjected to acts that terrorize and aim to silence the population," said Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who chairs the panel. He said whatever "services" the group provides to civilians is "always in the framework of this rule of terror," similar to criminal organizations that use such means to control populations.
Commission member Vitit Muntarbhorn told reporters in Geneva the report is meant to amplify the voices of victims, who describe executions, amputations, public lashings and the use of sexual slavery, child soldiers and widespread indoctrination.
The group has "become synonymous with extreme violence directed against civilians and captured fighters," the report said.
Humanitarian groups have been unable to reach almost 600,000 people living in the Islamic State-controlled Syrian provinces of Deir el-Zour and Raqqa, it says, and the group has obstructed the flow of medicine, doctors and nurses into Hassakeh province.
"The group deploys its fighters and materiel in close proximity to civilian areas," the report concludes.
The 47-nation Human Rights Council in Geneva authorized the commission to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in Syria and to identify whenever possible those responsible, so that they can be prosecuted.
The Islamic State group presents itself as a new Muslim caliphate and has imposed a harsh version of Shariah law in the areas under its control. On Thursday a website affiliated with the group said its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has ordered the minting of gold, silver and copper coins for a new currency. The authenticity of the posting could not be independently verified but the website has been used in the past for IS postings.
The group's quest for hegemony has long put it at odds with Syrian rebels and even other jihadist groups, including the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate known as the Nusra Front.
But The Associated Press has learned that leaders from the Islamic State and al-Qaida gathered at a farm house in northern Syria last week and agreed on a plan to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents.
The news came from a high-level Syrian opposition official and a rebel commander. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
A merger between the two powerful groups would pose a major threat to the "moderate" rebels Washington is counting on to battle the Islamic State group on the ground in Syria.
U.S. aircraft struck al-Qaida militants in Syria on Thursday for a third time since the air campaign began.
American defense officials said the strike targeted the Khorasan group, which the U.S. says is a special cell within the Nusra Front which is plotting attacks against Western interests. The officials did not provide any details, and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
In a recording released days after he was reported to be wounded in an airstrike, al-Baghdadi said the U.S.-led coalition's campaign had failed and it would eventually have to send ground troops into battle.
The 17-minute message, in which he urged his followers to "explode the volcanoes of jihad everywhere," appeared authentic, but it was not clear whether it was made before or after the incident in which al-Baghdadi was said to have been wounded.
Heilprin reported from Geneva.