Battle for Iraq refinery, US hesitates to strike

2014-06-19 17:07
(Mohammed Sawaf, AFP)

(Mohammed Sawaf, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

kalahari.com

Tikrit - Iraqi government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country's biggest refinery on Thursday as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki waited for a US response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.

Secretary of State John Kerry said 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 Shi'ite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.

A government spokesperson said around 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 publicly appealed for US air power, there were indications Washington is sceptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a Nato ally, said the United States "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 Maliki.

Video aired by Al-Arabiya television 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 miles 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 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters had attacked militant positions overnight, he added.

Captured territory

Baiji, 40km north of 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 both transport and generating electricity.

ISIL, which considers Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority as heretics in league with neighbouring Shi'ite Iran, has led a Sunni charge across northern Iraq after capturing the major city of Mosul last week as Maliki's US-armed forces collapsed.

The group's advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shi'ite militias and other volunteers. But on Tuesday, Sunni fighters took the small town of Mutasim, south of Samarra, giving them the prospect of encircling the city which houses a major Shi'ite shrine.

A local police source said security forces withdrew without a fight when dozens of vehicles carrying insurgents converged on Mutasim from three directions.

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 centre for terrorism.

The Iraqi government made public on Wednesday its request for US air strikes, two and 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".

US response

Some politicians have urged Obama to insist that 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."

He played down the extent of possible US cooperation with Iran, the main Shi'ite power, which backs Maliki, saying Washington wanted communication on Iraq with its long-time enemy to avoid "mistakes" but would not work closely with Tehran.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Iraq has asked for drone strikes and increased surveillance by US drones, which have been flying over Iraq. However, officials note, targets for air strikes could be hard to distinguish from civilians among whom ISIL's men were operating.

Turkish premier Erdogan said: "America, with its current stance and the statements it has made, does not view such attacks positively... Such an operation could result in a serious number of deaths among civilians."

The Saudi source told Reuters: "No outside interference will be of any benefit," adding that Washington, France and Britain all agreed with Riyadh that "dialogue and a political solution is the way forward in Iraq".

Competing with Iran for regional influence - a rivalry that echoes 13 centuries of Sunni-Shi'ite strife - Saudi Arabia hit back angrily at an accusation this week by Maliki's government that Riyadh was promoting sectarian "genocide" by supporting ISIL. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called that "ludicrous" and said Saudis were fighting ISIL, an al-Qaeda splinter group.

From Iran, which has pledged to intervene if necessary in Iraq to protect Shi'ite holy places, a tweet from an account linked to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei noted that Western powers support the mostly Sunni revolt against Syria's Iranian-backed leader. It called for Sunnis and Shi'ites to resist efforts by the militants and the West to divide Muslims.

Oil industry

If the Baiji refinery falls, ISIL and its allies will have access to a large supply of fuel to add to the weaponry and economic resources seized in Mosul and across the north.

An oil ministry official said the loss of Baiji would cause shortages in the north, including the autonomous Kurdish area, but that the impact on Baghdad would be limited - at around 20% of supplies - since it was served by other refineries.

Some oil companies have pulled out foreign workers.

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, many of whom feel excluded by the Shi'ite parties that have dominated elections since the Sunni Saddam was ousted.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Maliki appealed to tribes, a significant force in Sunni areas, 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 - some of which have funding and backing from Iran - have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25bn, crumbles.

Read more on:    nuri al-maliki  |  john kerry  |  barack obama  |  iraq  |  us

SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
8 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/Fashion
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Friday Cape Town - 16:15 PM
    Road name: Wet Weather
    RAIN across the greater Cape Town area - drive with care and use headlights - Allow Extra Tavel Time
  • Friday Kuils River - 09:28 AM
    Road name: Polkadraai Road Eastbound
    ROADWORKS between the R102 Van Riebeeck Road and the R310 Baden Powell Drive exit - DELAYS
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

2 TV Series for R250

Get 2 TV Series box sets for R250 and save up to R148! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on beauty & fragrances

Save up to 30% off beauty and fragrances. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Up to 50% off hair care products!

Save up to 50% on professional hair care products at kalahari.com. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

30% off academic books

Score a mind blowing 30% off academic books! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on electronics!

Save up to 35% on electronics. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Samsung Galaxy Tab P7500 10.1" Tablet With WiFi & 3G

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 gives you a better experience for...

From R4999.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

The day may have a fluctuating sensitive energy to begin with, but later when the Moon moves into dramatic and creative Leo you...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.