Iraq’s foreign minister has asked the US to launch air attacks on Sunni rebels to put down a week-long rebellion by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Hoshyar Zebari told a news conference on Wednesday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that a request had been made “to break the morale” of ISIL fighters.
The statement came as Iraqi security forces battled rebels at the country’s main oil refinery and claimed to regain partial control of a city near the Syrian border.
General Martin Dempsey, the top US military commander, confirmed the request during a Senate sub-committee hearing.
“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” said Dempsey. “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them.”
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama told Congressional leaders he didn’t not need congress’ approval for any action in Iraq, a leading Senate Republican said.
After a meeting between the president and senior members of Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell told reporters the president “indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take.”
White House officials have suggested Obama may be able to act on his own as the Iraq government has requested US military assistance.
Earlier, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said the government had “started our counter-offensive, regaining the initiative and striking back”.
Maliki’s relatively upbeat assessment came as the military claimed its forces regained parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, which ISIL fighters captured on Monday.
Its closeness to the Syrian border strengthens ISIL’s plan to carve out an “Islamic emirate” stretching across the Iraq-Syria border.
Also on Wednesday, Iraqi government forces claimed to have repelled an attack by rebels on the country’s largest oil refinery at Baiji, about 250km north of Baghdad, according to Qassim al-Moussawi, the chief military spokesman.
Moussawi said 40 attackers were killed in the fighting there overnight and on Wednesday morning.
There was no independent confirmation of his claims, nor those on the Iraqi military retaking neighbourhoods in Tal Afar.
Al Jazeera’s Omar Al Saleh, reporting from Baghdad, said that he spoke to a relative of an official at the refinery and was told that “75 per cent of the refinery was under the control of the rebels”.
“The situation remains unclear,” he said.
|Rebels attack Iraq’s largest oil refinery|
Meanwhile, oil companies Exxon Mobil and BP have started evacuating all non-essential staff from Iraq, and concerns have risen among oil importers about supplies.
In Salaheddin province, the fighters seized three villages, Albu Hassan, Birwajli and Bastamli, in northern Iraq on Wednesday during clashes with Iraq’s security forces and residents.
The fighting left at least 20 civilians dead, Shallal Abdul Baban, a local official, said.
Later on Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates recalled its envoy from Iraq and slammed “sectarian” policies. Saudi Arabia warned Iraq was heading for civil war.
In another development, the president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region has called on all retired members of the Peshmerga military to contact their former units, the Deutsche Presse-Agentur news agency reported.
“As a result of the current situation along the Kurdistan region borders, and in order to defend our people and to safeguard the achievement of the people of Kurdistan, it is the duty of all the people of the Kurdistan Region to demonstrate their support to the Peshmerga and security forces of Kurdistan,” Massoud Barzani said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Turkish foreign ministry said its diplomats were investigating claims that fighters had abducted 60 foreign construction workers, including about 15 Turks, near the oil city of Kirkuk.
The claims were based on a Turkish private Dogan news agency report that cited an unnamed worker who was reportedly freed by the rebels.
In New Delhi, Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry, said that 40 Indian construction workers had been kidnapped in Iraq.