ISIS Islamist militants have taken control of most of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, a facility that is key to the country’s domestic supply, as part of an ongoing lightning offensive in northern Iraq, a top security official said Wednesday.
The attack comes as the Sunni-led militants have taken control of vast portions of territory in Iraq amid the spectre of renewed sectarian warfare in the Shiite-majority country.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL) began their attack on the Baiji refinery, some 250 kilometres (155 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad, late on Tuesday night, the security official said. The attack continued into Wednesday morning with fighters targeting it with mortar shells, causing a small fire on the facility’s periphery.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
The Baiji refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country’s entire refining capacity – all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things like gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations.
Any lengthy outage at Baiji risks creating long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraqi citizens amid the unrest.
The militants also seized three villages in north Iraq Wednesday during clashes with security forces and residents that left 20 civilians dead, a local official said.
The official, Shallal Abdul Baban, named the villages as Albu Hassan, Birwajli and Bastamli, in Salaheddin province.
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Meanwhile, the Turkish foreign ministry said its diplomats were investigating claims that militants abducted 60 foreign construction workers, including some 15 Turks, near the city of Kirkuk, which Kurdish fighters took over from fleeing Iraqi soldiers amid the militant advance. The Islamists allegedly kidnapped foreign construction workers who were building a hospital, the private Dogan news agency reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed worker who was reportedly freed by the militants.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry could not immediately confirm the report but said its embassy was investigating.
Farther north in the city of Tal Afar, fighting raged between government troops and ISIS fighters who captured the city on Monday, chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al Moussawi told The Associated Press.
Tal Afar is close to the Syria border and its capture strengthens the Islamists' plan to carve out an “Islamic emirate” that covers territory on both sides of the territory.
‘Warning signs of a civil war’
Saudi Arabia warned Wednesday of the potential for the situation in Iraq to descend into a fully blown civil war and the risk this could pose for its neighbours.
UAE recalls ambassador to Iraq
The United Arab Emirates said Wednesday it was recalling its ambassador to Iraq for “consultations” citing concerns over the Iraqi government’s “sectarian” policies which it said could heighten political tensions and worsen security.
In a statement carried on the official WAM news agency, the foreign ministry added that the UAE, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, opposed any interference in Iraq’s affairs and sought the creation of a national unity government there.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
The unrest "carries warning signs of a civil war with unpredictable consequences for the region," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at the opening of an Islamic bloc meeting in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.
Saud renewed Saudi accusations that "sectarian policies of exclusion" of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority implemented by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government were responsible for the violence.
His remarks came as Iranian President Hassan Rohani said his country, Saudi Arabia's regional rival, would do whatever it takes to protect Shiite holy sites in Iraq against the Sunni militants.
The Iraqi government, which is close to Tehran, has accused Sunni Saudi Arabia of financing the militants.
"We hold (Saudi Arabia) responsible for what these groups are receiving in terms of financial and moral support," it said, accusing Riyadh of "siding with terrorism".
Some 275 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure US assets as President Barack Obama also considers an array of options for combating the Islamic militants, including airstrikes or a special forces unit.
The White House has continued to emphasise that any military engagement remains contingent on the government in Baghdad enacting political reforms and ending sectarian tensions, which had been on the rise even before the Islamic State’s incursion last week, with thousands killed since late last year.
Congress remains deeply divided over what steps the US can take militarily. Even lawmakers who voted in 2002 to give former president George W. Bush the authority to use military force to oust Saddam Hussein have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of drone airstrikes against the militants.
“Where will it lead, and will that be the beginning or the end?” asked Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican senator from Alabama, when asked about possible US airstrikes.
“We don’t know that. This underlying conflict has been going on 1,500 years between the Shias and the Sunnis and their allies. And I think whatever we do, it’s not going to go away,” he said.
During the eight-year US presence in Iraq, American forces acted as a buffer between the two Islamic sects, albeit with sporadic success. But US forces fully withdrew at the end of 2011 when Washington and Baghdad could not reach an agreement on extending the American military presence there.
Iraq has the world’s fifth-largest known crude oil reserves, with an estimated 143 billion barrels, according to the US Energy Information Administration. It produced some 2.58 million barrels of oil day in May, according to the oil ministry.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
Date created : 2014-06-18