Iraq has asked the United States to mount airstrikes against militants, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hohyar Zebari was quoted as saying on Wednesday as Sunni-led insurgents were pressing on with advances in the oil-rich country.
“Iraq has formally asked for Washington’s assistance under a security agreement to mount airstrikes against the terrorist groups,” Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV quoted Zebari as saying on the sidelines of an Islamic meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday notified Congress that he intended to send 275 military personnel to Iraq to safeguard the security of American government officials and citizens there.
Fighters of the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) reportedly captured on Wednesday large parts of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baijig, some 200 kilometres north of the capital Baghdad, after an onslaught that started at dawn.
But military spokesman Qasem Ataa said the attack had been foiled and 40 of the militants killed.
Baiji has been the scene of intermittent fighting since ISIL - a splinter al-Qaeda group - launched its blitz against government forces last week, seizing the northern city of Mosul and a string of towns stretching south towards Baghdad.
The refinery was already operating at reduced capacity and security conditions made overland transport of its oil difficult, security officials told DPA on Tuesday.
The developments raise the prospect of fuel shortages throughout the country. Baiji accounts for almost one third of Iraq’s refinery capacity and is linked by pipeline to Baghdad.
Elsewhere in the country, insurgents took control of three villages on the edge of the area of Tuz Khurmat north of Baghdad, witnesses said.
Embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki meanwhile gave a strong indication that he intended to remain in place when the recently-elected parliament convenes.
In a speech on state television, he cited the country’s constitution which says that the prime minister is nominated by the biggest bloc in parliament.
Mr. Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition came first in the elections, winning 92 of 338 seats.
“Despite the shock ... the political process is continuing,” Mr. al-Maliki insisted. The Shiite premier slammed Saudi and Qatari media for portraying ISIL and other Sunni fighters as revolutionaries and tribesmen.
“What revolutionary, what tribesman would be willing to kill 400 prisoners? What tribe would be willing to destroy the country in this way?” he argued.
And Mr. al-Maliki said that those volunteering to fight with the government in the north were both Shiites and Sunnis.
Insurgents’ lightning advances have raised international concerns that Iraq is falling apart, leaving room for the emergence of a militant enclave.
The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Iraq for “consultation”, voicing concerns over what it described as the “sectarian policy” of Mr. al-Maliki government.
In Amman, King Abdullah of Jordan made a rare appearance at a cabinet meeting to assure officials and citizens that the country remains “secure” despite the turmoil in neighbouring Iraq.
“We in Jordan are in a very strong position and there is ongoing coordination and cooperation among the government, the armed forces and security agencies to protect Jordan and protect its borders and domestic security,” he said.
About 60 foreigners - including 15 Turks and citizens of Pakistan, Nepal and Turkmenistan - have been kidnapped by ISIL in northern Iraq, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported.
The Indian Foreign Ministry said that at least 40 Indian construction workers had been kidnapped by unknown abductors in Mosul but no ransom demands had yet been made.
Iraq has seen increasing violence over the past year, much of it blamed on the ISIL and aimed at security forces and Shiite civilians.
The Shiite-led government’s response, with security sweeps and mass arrests, has alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority, from which ISIL and other rebel groups draw their support.