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
under siege for a week.
A lightning advance has seen Sunni fighters rout the Shi'ite-led
government's army and seize the main cities across the north of the
country since last week.
The fighters are led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
which aims to build a caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but
also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at
what they see as oppression by Baghdad.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a
united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister 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.
But so far Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his
fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials lashing out at Sunni
political leaders as traitors. Extra-legal Shi'ite militia - many
believed to be funded and backed by Iran - have mobilized to halt
the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the
United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.
Overt participation by Iran, the Middle East's main Shi'ite power
which fought a war that killed a million people against Iraq in the
1980s, would transform the fight into a conflict spanning the
frontiers of the region.
Speaking on live television to a crowd, Iran's President Hassan
Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that Tehran was prepared
"Regarding the holy Shia shines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and
Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big
Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines," he said.
He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although
he also emphasized that Iraqis were prepared to defend themselves:
"Thanks be to God, I’ll tell the dear people of Iran that veterans
and various forces - Sunnis Shias and Kurds all over Iraq - are
ready for sacrifice."
Millions of Shi'ite pilgrims visit Iraq's holy sites each year.
Iraqi government forces are holding out against Sunni fighters in
the city of Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the most
important Shi'ite shrines. The Sunni fighters have vowed to carry
their offensive south to Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam
since the Middle Ages.
The Baiji refinery is the fighters' immediate goal, the biggest
source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq, which would give
them a firm grip on energy supply in the north where the local
population has complained of fuel shortages.
The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown out by
helicopter. Elite Iraqi troops have repeatedly repelled attempts to
capture it, even as the towns and cities in the area rapidly fell to
the ISIL advance last week.
"The militants have managed to break in to 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 refinery said.
The government's counter-terrorism spokesman, Sabah Nouri, insisted
forces were still in control and had killed 50-60 fighters and
burned 6 or 7 insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three
Several sources described smoke billowing from the compound after
parts of the refinery were hit. During the 2003-2011 U.S.
occupation, the refinery stayed open, and the threat to it shows how
much more vulnerable Iraq is now to insurgents than it was before
Washington pulled out troops.
[to top of second column]
In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and
ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late
Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood frostily 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.
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 in mass graves - is a
test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of
Iraq in 2011.
Obama has ruled out resending ground troops but is considering other
military options to help defend Baghdad, and U.S. officials have
even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual foe, a
move that would be unprecedented.
But U.S. 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 U.S. troops deposed
dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.
"There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive
scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders," U.N. Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon said. "I have been urging Iraqi government leaders
including Prime Minister al-Maliki to reach out for an inclusive
dialogue and solution of this issue."
Maliki, in power for eight years and effective winner of a
parliamentary election two months ago, seems instead to be relying
more heavily than ever on his own sect, who form a majority long
oppressed under Saddam.
Though the joint statement late on Tuesday said only those directly
employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi'ite
militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.
According to one Shi'ite Islamist working in the government,
well-trained organizations Asaib Ahl Haq, Khataeb Hezbollah and the
Badr Organisation are now being deployed alongside Iraqi military
units as the main combat force.
With battles now raging just an hour's drive to the north of the
capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw fierce
sectarian street fighting from 2006-1007 and is still divided into
Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by razor wire and
concrete blast walls.
Sunnis worry about convoys of civilian cars with bearded men in
military uniform they believe are militiamen. Shi’ites living in
Sunni districts are moving away, worried that a new round of civil
war is unfolding.
Two attacks hit Shi'ite markets in Baghdad Tuesday, a suicide bomber
and a car bomb. At least 18 people were killed and 52 wounded,
according to medical and security sources.
(Reporting By Ghazwan Hassan, Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker; Editing by
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