BAGHDAD: The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) attacked one of Iraq’s largest air bases and seized control of several small oilfields Wednesday, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting for his job, rejected calls for an interim “national salvation government.”
Maliki’s public statement came as U.S. special forces troops and intelligence analysts arrived to help Iraqi security forces counter the mounting Sunni insurgency, headed by ISIS.
Several politicians have called on Maliki to step down and form a so-called national salvation government that could provide leadership until a permanent solution can be found.
Maliki, however, insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed, saying the formation of a “national salvation” government would amount to a “coup against the constitution.”
Instead he called on “political forces” to close ranks in the face of a growing threat by ISIS, but took no concrete steps to meet U.S. demands for greater political conclusiveness.
“We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts,” Maliki said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American military advisers, about 130 of whom have now been deployed. The advisers could gather information about targets for future airstrikes although no decision has been taken to start American bombing. Another 50 U.S. military personnel working in the region are expected to arrive within the next few days to create four additional assessment teams. U.S. military personnel are also flying regular manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Iraq.
Iraqi state television reported that newly arrived Pentagon advisers met Baghdad’s operations commander and agreed to set up a joint operation command.
Fighting has knocked towns and cities across the north and west out of the central government’s control.
Wednesday, militants overran the Ajeel oil site, 30 km east of Tikrit, which contains at least three small oil fields that produce 28,000 barrels per day, an engineer working at the field said.
Ajeel is connected to two pipelines, one running to Turkey’s Ceyhan port and the other to the Baiji oil refinery. State TV showed troop reinforcements flying into the compound by helicopter to fend off the assault on Baiji, a strategic industrial complex 200 km north of Baghdad.
Local tribal leaders said they were negotiating with both the government and ISIS to allow the tribes to run the plant if Iraqi forces withdraw.In Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an outdoor market, killing 13, officials said.
In Mosul, which has been under the control of ISIS and other insurgents for over two weeks, militants bombed a Shiite mosque in the Sharekhan neighborhood in the city’s northern outskirts, residents said.
In Kirkuk, a suicide bomber blew himself up when police stopped him as he tried to enter a market in a Kurdish neighborhood, killing six, police said. It was the first attack since Kurdish forces occupied the city two weeks ago.
“The suicide attacker was wearing Kurdish dress. Kurdish security forces suspected he was hiding something under his clothes, and when they tried to stop him at the entrance to search him, he blew himself up,” a Kurdish security source said.
Militants including ISIS and allied Sunni tribes battled Iraqi forces in the town of Yathrib, 90 km north of Baghdad, into the early hours of Wednesday, witnesses and the deputy head of the municipality said.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry said it had destroyed four fuel tankers and three vehicles loaded with ammunition used by militants, south of the town of Seniya, which is west of the town of Baiji near the refinery.
In recent days, Baghdad’s grip on the western frontier with Syria and Jordan has also been challenged.
One post on the Syrian border has fallen to militants and another has been taken by Kurds. A third crossing with Syria and the only crossing with Jordan are contested, with militants and Baghdad both claiming control.
U.S. officials say there are indications that Syria launched airstrikes into western Iraq Tuesday, in an attempt to slow the insurgency. Officials said the strikes appeared to be the work of Assad’s government.
The White House said intervention by Syria was not the way to stem the insurgents. “The solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which allowed ISIS to thrive in the first place,” said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman.