Iraqi forces are battling Sunni rebels for control of the country’s largest oil refinery as the government waits on a US response for air attacks to beat back a rebel advance threatening Baghdad.
Troops loyal to the Shia-led government on Thursday were holding off rebels and fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant at the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, some 200km north of the capital.
A government spokesman said early on Thursday that Iraqi forces were in “complete control”, but a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing.
The refinery was shut down on Tuesday after rebels launched their attack.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Erbil, said the situation was fluid with both sides claiming control.
“Iraqi forces have gone on the offensive and according to Baghdad have pushed Sunni rebels back,” she said.
Baiji lies in territory captured in the past week by the ISIL fighters and its Sunni allies, and is close to Tikrit.
The Iraqi government made a public request for US air strikes on Wednesday to thwart the assault.
The US has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, many of whom feel excluded by the Shia parties that have dominated elections since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
The secular Baath party, a political monopoly under Saddam, called on Iraqis to unite against Maliki.
“All the true, vibrant colours of our great Iraqi people must come together under one banner, against the American and Iranian conspiracies and their treacherous government under Maliki and their disgraceful sectarian and ethnic militias.”
Iraq’s neighbours have also urged political intervention as the only solution to heal the country’s sectarian divisions.
Washington has given no indication whether it will carry out attacks, with some US politicians urging the president, Barack Obama, that Maliki should go as a condition for US help.
|US mulls over possible Iraq air stikes|
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, avoided a direct answer when asked by senators whether Washington would accede to the Iraq request.
US officials told the Reuters news agency that Iraq’s request had included drone attacks and aerial surveillance.
Several leading figures in Congress have spoken out against Maliki. Obama has urged the Iraqi prime minister to do more to overcome sectarian rifts.
Republican senator John McCain urged Obama to “make it very clear to Maliki that his time is up”.