Iraqi forces fight for control of oil refinery
BAGHDAD — Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships battled Sunni militants for a third day on Thursday for control of Iraq's largest oil refinery, the loss of which would be a devastating symbol of the Baghdad government's powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West.
The two sides held different parts of the Beiji facility, which extends over several square kilometers of desert. The facility, which was shut down, normally produces about 300,000 barrels per day, strictly for domestic consumption.
The militants, led by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, clearly hope to get millions of dollars in revenue from operating the refinery — as they did for a while after seizing oil fields in neighboring Syria. More broadly, however, capturing the facility could weaken Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's hold on power by calling into question his ability to stop the militants' advance anywhere in Iraq.
In the strongest sign yet of U.S. doubts about Iraq's stability, the Obama administration is weighing whether to press the Shiite prime minister to step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent disgruntled Sunnis from igniting a civil war.
President Barack Obama is also expected to announce Thursday that he is deploying about 100 Green Berets to Iraq to help train and advise Iraqi forces, according to a U.S. official. The president has said he has no plans to send Americans to Iraq for combat missions.
Obama planned to speak about the crumbling situation in Iraq from the White House Thursday afternoon after meeting with his national security team.
A witness who drove past the Beiji facility, some 155 miles north of Baghdad, said the militants manned checkpoints around it and hung their black banners on watchtowers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
One of the militants laying siege to the refinery confirmed by telephone that the facility remained in government hands, saying helicopter gunships slowed the insurgents' advance. The militant identified himself only by his alias, Abu Anas, and there was no way to verify his identity or location.
The army officer in charge of protecting the refinery, Col. Ali al-Qureishi, told state-run Iraqiya television by telephone that the facility remained under his control. He said his forces had killed nearly 100 militants since Tuesday.
A top Iraqi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the refinery's workers were evacuated to nearby villages.
Photos obtained by The Associated Press showed the charred skeletons of destroyed army vehicles by a road that runs past the facility. The photos, taken Thursday morning, also show U.S.-made Humvees captured by the militants flying the black banners and the heavily armed militants manning a checkpoint. In the background, heavy black smoke rises up from the refinery.
The facility's production accounts for just over a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity. It goes strictly toward domestic consumption for gasoline as well as fuel for cooking and power stations.
The gasoline largely goes to northern Iraq, and its closure this week has already caused a shortage there. In Irbil, a city controlled by ethnic Kurds, lines stretched for miles at gas stations as angry motorists shouted at each other.
“Everybody in Mosul and the (northern) Nineva province is coming to Kurdistan to fill up on gas,” said a resident of a village near Mosul who gave his name as Mohammed. “And they don't have enough here.”
Electricity also went out in some areas held by the Islamic State.
The assault on the refinery also has affected global gasoline prices, as the U.S. national average price reached $3.68 per gallon, the highest price for this time of year since 2008, the year gasoline hit its all-time high in America.
It isn't clear what the insurgents would do if they fully captured Beiji. In Syria, the Islamic State has control of some smaller oil fields, but government air raids have limited their ability to profit from them. Militants have, however, refined oil into usable fuel products at primitive refineries.
The campaign by the Islamic State militants has raised the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, with the popular mobilization to fight the insurgents taking an increasingly sectarian slant, particularly after Iraq's top Shiite cleric made a call to arms on Friday.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, home to some of the sect's most revered shrines, in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left in late 2011. The militants also have tried to capture Samarra, a city north of Baghdad and home to another major Shiite shrine.
On Thursday, the bullet-riddled bodies of four handcuffed men, presumably Sunnis, were discovered in the Shiite Baghdad district of Abu Dashir, police and morgue officials said. A roadside bomb hit a police patrol on a highway in the east of the city, killing two police officers and wounding two, police and hospital officials said.
A car bomb also exploded inside a parking lot in Baghdad's southeastern Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, killing three people and wounding seven, the officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the journalists.
Al-Maliki, who has long faced criticism for not making his government more inclusive, went on a diplomatic offensive Wednesday, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation's disaffected Sunnis and Kurds.
Still, al-Maliki's outreach remain largely rhetoric, with no concrete action to bridge differences with the Sunnis or the Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the prime minister over their right to independently export oil from their self-rule region in the north and over territorial claims.
The United Arab Emirates, a key Western ally and important regional trading partner for Iraq, temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Iraq “for consultations.” The Gulf federation's foreign ministry cited deep concern at the Iraqi government's “exclusionary and sectarian policies,” according to a statement carried Wednesday night by the state news agency WAM.
The statement is likely to further stoke tensions between al-Maliki's Shite-led government and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states, particularly Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia. The Baghdad government has this week accused Riyadh of meddling in its internal affairs, responding to a Saudi Cabinet statement Monday that blamed “exclusion and marginalization” policies in Iraq for the ongoing crisis. Iraq also accuses Qatar of interfering in its affairs.