Tribal fighters shout slogans while holding weapons in
Basra, southeast of Baghdad. REUTERS/ Essam Al-Sudani
Iraq has asked the United States for air support in
countering Sunni rebels, the top US general says, after the
militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has
routed the Shi'ite-led government's army.
However, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US
military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when
asked at a Congressional hearing whether Washington would
agree to the request.
Baghdad said it wanted US air strikes as the insurgents, led
by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
(ISIL), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in
Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the
prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to
sweep across Middle East frontiers.
"We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,"
Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether
the United States should honour that request, he said: "It is
in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we
In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar
Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes "to break the
morale" of ISIL.
While Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not
intervened to help the Baghdad government, "everything is
possible", he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign
The White House has said President Barack Obama has not yet
decided what action, if any, to take following the rebel
onslaught, and was due to discuss the options with leaders of
Congress later on Wednesday.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the
Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased
surveillance by US drones, which have been flying over Iraq
for some time.
However, any air targets would be hard to identify because
the militants did not have traditional supply lines or major
physical infrastructure and mingled with civilians.
Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the
territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official
said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates
defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a
ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval
precepts, but the rebels also include a broad spectrum of
more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression
Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign
workers. The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya
Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and
BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticised the
moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are
mainly in the Shi'ite south and far from the fighting.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq
as a united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and
Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a
frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal
for national unity was read out.
In a televised address on Wednesday Maliki appealed to tribes
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 for support, with officials denouncing
Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi'ite militia - many
believed to be funded and backed by Iran - have mobilised to
halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army,
built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion,
Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be
brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the
insurgents seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.
Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting
threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along
sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an
existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift
dating to the 7th century.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest
declaration yet that the Middle East's main Shi'ite power,
which fought a war against Iraq that killed a million people
in the 1980s, was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq's
great shrines of Shi'ite imams, visited by millions of
pilgrims each year.
"Regarding the holy Shi'a shrines in Karbala, Najaf,
Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and
terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to
protect holy shrines," Rouhani said in an address to a crowd
on live TV.
He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight,
although he also said Iraqis of all sects were prepared to
defend themselves: "Thanks be to God, I will tell the dear
people of Iran that veterans and various forces - Sunnis,
Shias and Kurds all over Iraq - are ready for sacrifice."
Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra
north of Baghdad, site of one of the main Shi'ite shrines.
The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to
Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam since the Middle
Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, said Iraq was
hurtling towards civil war. Foreign Minister Prince Saud
al-Faisal, in words clearly aimed at Iran and at Baghdad's
Shi'ite rulers, deplored the prospect of "foreign
intervention" and said governments need to meet "legitimate
demands of the people".
Maliki's government has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting
"genocide" by backing Sunni militants. Riyadh supports Sunni
fighters in Syria but denies aiding ISIL.
The Baiji refinery is the fighters' immediate goal, the
biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq,
which would give them a grip on energy supply in the north
where the population has complained of fuel shortages.
The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown
out by helicopter.
"The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now
they are in control of the production units, administration
building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the
refinery," an official speaking from inside the facility
The government denied the refinery had fallen.
Counter-terrorism spokesman Sabah Nouri insisted forces were
still in control and had killed 50 to 60 fighters and burned
six or seven insurgent vehicles after being attacked from
Oil prices rose on news the refinery was partly in rebel
Last week's sudden advance by ISIL - a group that declares
all Shi'ites to be heretics deserving death and has proudly
distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners
lying prone in mass graves - is a test for Obama, who pulled
US troops out of Iraq in 2011.
Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops and US
officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against
the mutual enemy. However, the White House said more talks
with Iran about dealing with the crisis in Iraq, which have
taken place on the sidelines of meetings on Tehran's nuclear
programme, are unlikely for the time being.
US and other international officials insist Maliki must do
more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion
among Sunnis, the minority that ran Iraq until US troops
deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.
US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back
sending US troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he
described as a "civil war".
Reid and three other congressional leaders - Senate
Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives
Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi
- are meeting Obama later on Wednesday.
Western countries fear an ISIL-controlled mini-state in Syria
and Iraq could become a haven for militants who could then
stage attacks around the globe.
In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian
and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met
late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood before
cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite politician who held
the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.
"No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion," Jaafari
said in the address, which included a broad promise of
"reviewing the previous course" of Iraqi politics.
Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama
al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each
other in silence.
Though the joint statement said only those directly employed
by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi'ite
militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.
With battles now raging just an hour's drive north of the
capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw
fierce sectarian street fighting from 2006-2007 and is still
divided into Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by
razor wire and concrete blast walls.