BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON: Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said Wednesday, as insurgents fought their way into the country’s biggest oil refinery and Iran’s president raised the prospect of intervening.
However, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.
“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honor that request, he answered indirectly, saying: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIS wherever we find them.”
In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria).
While Iraq’s ally Iran had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible,” Zebari told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.
Sunni insurgents 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 week.
Some international oil firms have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq’s southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said ExxonMobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had sent 20 percent of its staff out of the country. He criticized the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the south and far from the fighting.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to keep Iraq a united country by leaning hard on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding in a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read.
In a televised address Wednesday, Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas.”
He also said in a statement that 59 officers would be brought before court for fleeing their posts last week when the insurgents seized the city of Mosul.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that his country was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq’s great shrines of Shiite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.
“Regarding the holy Shiite 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.
Iraqi troops are holding off insurgents outside Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the main shrines. The fighters vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Karbala. Saudi Arabia said Iraq was hurtling toward civil war. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in words clearly aimed at leaders in Baghdad and Tehran, deplored the prospect of “foreign intervention” and said governments needed to meet “legitimate demands of the people.”
Maliki’s government has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting “genocide” by backing the militants. Riyadh supports insurgents in Syria but denies aiding ISIS.
The United Arab Emirates recalled its ambassador from Baghdad and criticized what it called the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government.
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 closed Tuesday, and foreign workers evacuated by helicopter.
“The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watchtowers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” an official speaking at the refinery said.
The government denied the refinery had fallen. Counterterrorism 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 three directions.
Oil prices rose on news the refinery was partly in rebel hands.