Iraqi government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country’s biggest refinery yesterday as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waited for a US response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said US President Barack Obama still had “all options” open to him, but US regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia echoed concern in Washington about the risk of US action serving only to inflame the sectarian war.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200km north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shiite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
A government spokesman said at about noon that its forces were in “complete control,” but a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing and ISIL militants were still present.
A day after the government appealed for US air power, there were indications that Washington is skeptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said the US “does not view such attacks positively,” given the risk to civilians. A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni state in the region, that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian division that has widened under al-Maliki.
Video aired by Al-Arabiya TV showed smoke billowing from the plant and the black flag used by ISIL flying from a building. Workers who had been inside the complex, which spreads for kilometers close to the Tigris River, 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 to 300 remaining staff were evacuated early yesterday, one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters had attacked militant positions overnight, he added.
Baiji, 40km north of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit, lies squarely in territory captured in the past week by an array of armed Sunni groups, spearheaded by ISIL, which is seeking a new Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. On Tuesday, staff shut down the plant, which makes much of the fuel Iraqis in the north need for transport and generating electricity.
ISIL, whose leader broke with al-Qaeda after accusing the global jihadist movement of being too cautious, has now secured cities and territory in Iraq and Syria, in effect putting it well on the path to establishing its own well-armed enclave that Western countries fear could become a center for terrorism.
The Iraqi government made public on Wednesday its request for US air strikes, two-and-a-half years after US forces ended the nine-year occupation that began by toppling Saddam in 2003.
Asked whether Washington would accede to that appeal, Kerry told NBC only that “nothing is off the table.”
Some politicians have urged Obama to insist that al-Maliki goes as a condition for further US help.
Asked about US aid for the prime minister, Kerry said: “What the United States is doing is about Iraq, it’s not about Maliki. Nothing the president decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki. It is focused on the people of Iraq.”