Iraqi government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country's biggest refinery on Thursday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waited for a U.S. response to an appeal for airstrikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.
Sunni militants hung their black banners on watch towers at Iraq's Beiji oil refinery, a witness said Thursday, suggesting the vital facility, situated some 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, had fallen to the insurgents, the Associated Press reported.
However, a top Iraq security official said the government force protecting the refinery was still inside Thursday and that they were in regular contact with Baghdad, according to the AP.
Iraqi military spokesman Qassem Mohammed Atta insisted during a news conference that government security forces control the entire Beiji refinery, adding that more than 70 “terrorists” were killed as they tried to attack the plant, and that 17 of their vehicles were destroyed in the battle.
Some reports say from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, along with their allies, have also entered the town of Baquba on the Diyala River, 60 kilometers north of the capital.
General Atta claimed a number of media organizations were “lying” about recent events, broadcasting false information to “affect the morale of the [Iraqi] public.” Five Iraqi TV stations have reportedly been shut down by the government for alleged infractions.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a witness who drove past the sprawling Beiji refinery, which spreads along the Tigris River for miles, said militants manned checkpoints around facility while a huge fire burned in one of its tanks. Troops loyal to the Shi'ite-led government were still inside the refinery fighting insurgents who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, he said.
Gunships fly over
Helicopter gunships flew over the facility to stop further militant advances, which threaten national energy supplies, one Iraqi official said. The insurgents took over a building just outside the refinery and were using it to fire at government forces, he said.
The army officer in charge of protecting the refinery, Col. Ali al-Qureishi, told state-run Iraqiya television by telephone that the facility remained under his control.
Workers who had been inside the complex said Sunni militants seemed to hold most of the compound in early morning and that security forces were concentrated around the refinery's control room.
The 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers told Reuters by telephone.
The Beiji refinery accounts for just over a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity — all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things such as gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations.
Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already taking hold in the region. The refinery produces about 300,000 barrels per day.
Meanwhile, residents of the Iraqi capital complained of increasing shortages, rising prices, and deteriorating conditions.
"Water is in short supply and electricity cuts have been increasingly frequent, forcing residents to use generators," said on merchant.
Iraqi security spokesman Sa'ad Ma'an says the government is attempting to put a stop to price gouging, threatening to arrest traders he accused of speculation. He also insisted Baghdad has “enough food for years to come.”
US airstrikes sought
Baghdad has formally requested that Washington launch airstrikes on the advancing militants, but there were no signs Thursday of imminent U.S. military action.
While U.S. President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said, adding that civilian casualties could further enrage the Sunni minority.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the U.S. had received a request for air power to stop the militants, but highlighted the uncertain political situation in Iraq.
"The entire enterprise is at risk as long as this political situation is in flux," told a Senate panel Wednesday.
Regional U.S. allies seemed keen to discourage air strikes.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said the United States “does not view such attacks positively,” given the risk to civilians — a view some U.S. officials have also expressed.
A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni power in the region, that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian division that has widened under al-Maliki.
Saudi Arabia also dismissed as ludicrous on Thursday an accusation by al-Maliki that the kingdom backed Sunni militants who have seized swaths of northern Iraq.
Speaking to reporters in Jeddah, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal added that the kingdom had criminalized terrorism, especially that perpetrated by the militant ISIL, and he advised Maliki to follow the policy pursued by the kingdom in eradicating terrorism.
The swift advance of fighters led by ISIL has sparked international alarm and the United Nations has warned that the crisis was "life-threatening for Iraq."
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced in the nine days of fighting and an unknown number killed, while dozens of Indians and Turks have been kidnapped.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, many of whom feel excluded by the Shi'ite parties that have dominated elections since the Sunni Saddam was ousted.
In a televised address on Wednesday, al-Maliki appealed to tribes, a significant force in Sunni areas, to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas."
But so far Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites and volunteers for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors.
Maliki announced Thursday that the government is offering volunteers $644 per month to fight alongside the country's security forces in "hot areas" battling the insurgency, and that the government will pay non-fighting volunteers who aid security forces $450 per month. He also promised all volunteers will receive an extra food allowance.
Shi'ite militias — some of which have funding and backing from Iran — have mobilized to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.
Some U.S. officials castigated al-Maliki, who is being blamed in Washington for causing Iraq to splinter after discriminating against the minority Sunni community, the French news agency AFP reported.
Vice President Joe Biden drove home the U.S. message that al-Maliki needs to lead all Iraqis, not just Shiites.
He told the Iraqi leader in a telephone call that he must govern in an "inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq's population, and address the legitimate needs of Iraq's diverse communities," a White House statement said.
Dempsey, too, blamed the Iraqi government for the deepening sectarian mire.
"There is very little that could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq had failed its people," Dempsey said.
Former U.S. commander in Iraq David Petraeus also weighed in, warning a conference in London that Washington risked becoming an "air force for Shiite militias" and supporting "one side of what could be a sectarian civil war" if political reconciliation was not agreed.
Despite growing political pressure in Washington for Maliki to quit, Obama has not made such a demand public.
“The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” said Dianne Feinstein, one of Obama's fellow Democrats, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Republican senator John McCain urged Obama to “make it make very clear to Maliki that his time is up."
Beiji, 40 km (25 miles) north of Saddam Hussein's home city of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past week by the array of armed Sunni groups spearheaded by ISIL, which is seeking a new Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. ISIL considers Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority heretics in league with neighboring Shi'ite Iran. The group's advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shi'ite militias and other volunteers.
ISIL, whose leader broke with al-Qaida after accusing the global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, bringing it closer to establishing its own well-armed regional enclave that, Western countries fear, could become a global epicenter for terrorism.
If the Beiji refinery falls, ISIL and its allies will have access to a large supply of fuel to add to the weaponry and economic resources seized in Mosul and across the north.
An oil ministry official said the loss of Beiji would cause shortages in the north, including the autonomous Kurdish area, but that the impact on Baghdad would be limited — at around 20 percent of supplies — since it was served by other refineries.
Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers.
The assault on the refinery also has affected global gasoline prices, as the U.S. national average price reached $3.67 per gallon, the highest price for this time of year since 2008, the year gasoline hit its all-time high in America.
The price of benchmark crude for July delivery rose 57 cents Thursday to $106.54 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Ed Yeranian contributed reporting from Cairo. Some information for this report comes from AP and Reuters.