Tag Archives: Nouri al-Maliki

Islamic State militants fight for Iraq’s two biggest dams

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Militants from the Islamic State are battling ferociously to control one of Iraq’s most vital resources: water.

Fighters with the group launched a three-pronged attack over the weekend in a drive to capture Haditha Dam, in western Iraq, a complex with six power generators located alongside Iraq’s second-largest reservoir. At the same time, they are fighting to capture Iraq’s largest dam, Mosul Dam, in the north of the country.

Seizing the dams and the large reservoirs they hold would give the militants control over water and electricity that they could use to help build support in the territory they now rule by providing the scarce resources to residents. Or they could sell the resources as a lucrative source of revenue.

They could also use the dams as a weapon of war by flooding terrain downstream to slow Iraq’s military or disrupt life. They have done that with a smaller dam they hold closer to Baghdad. But with the larger dams, there are limits on this tactic since it would also flood areas that the insurgents hold.

On Friday, the fighters unleashed a powerful attack from three sides on the town of Haditha in western Anbar province. Suicide attackers tried but failed to detonate an oil tanker and several trucks packed with explosives. The aim was to obliterate the final line of defense between the militants and Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, the commander of Anbar Operations Command, told The Associated Press.

For a brief moment, it seemed all was lost. The Sunni militants seized the army command headquarters in town, with very little stopping them from reaching the dam. But some local Sunni tribes who oppose the militants and feared for their livelihoods if the dam were captured sent fighters to reinforce the 2,000 soldiers guarding the town, allowing for a narrow victory. At least 35 militants and 10 soldiers were killed in clashes on Friday, Fleih said.

But the militants have been fighting every day since trying to take the town, according to four senior military sources in Anbar province. They spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.

Only 10 kilometers (6 miles) remain between the militants and the dam.

The jihadis are also closing in on the Mosul Dam — or Saddam Dam as it was once known — located north of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, which fell to the militants on June 10. Fighting intensified in the region Sunday after the nearby towns of Zumar and Sinjar fell to the militants.

Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have managed to hold the fighters off for now, but the growing strength and savvy of these Islamic militants is raising grave concerns.

The peshmerga are “under a great deal of pressure now” as they defend a 150-kilometer (80-mile) frontline against the Islamic State group along the edges of the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north,” Maj. Gen. Jabar Yawer, the official spokesman of the Kurdistan Region Guard Forces, told The Associated Press.

He said late Sunday there were fierce battles ongoing in towns and villages near the dam on the Tigris River. Fearing the worst, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki commanded his air force to reinforce the peshmerga Monday in a rare show of cooperation despite deep political divisions between al-Maliki and the Kurds.

“God forbid, if something happens that results in the destruction of the dam, it will be very, very dangerous,” Yawer said.

Earlier this year, the group’s fighters captured the smaller Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates when they seized the nearby city of Fallujah. Repeatedly, the militants have used it as a weapon, opening it to flood downriver when government forces move in on the city.

Worst hit has been the area of Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of Baghdad. In May, some 12,000 families lost crops and many fled their homes, worsening Iraq’s growing crisis of internal displacement. The Special Representative for the U.N. Secretary General in Iraq called the incident a “water war,” and called on Iraqi forces and local tribes to team up and take back Iraqi waterways.

Doing that with Hadith and Mosul Dams is more problematic, since militant-controlled lie downstream. But damage to either could be disastrous, particularly in the case of the Mosul Dam. It has millions of cubic meters of water pent up behind it on the Tigris River, which — some 370 kilometers (220 miles) downstream — runs through the heart of Baghdad.

“Everything under it will be under five to 10 meters (yards) of water… including Baghdad itself,” said Ali Khedery, head of the Dubai-based consultancy Dragoman Partners and a longtime adviser to the U.S. military, government and companies in Iraq. “It would be catastrophic.”

Dams are critical in Iraq for generating electricity, regulating river flow and providing irrigation. Water is a precious commodity in this largely desert country of 32.5 million people. The decline of water levels in the Euphrates over recent years has led to electricity shortages in towns south of Baghdad, where steam-powered generators depend entirely on water levels.

Water has been used as a weapon in the past. After Shiite Muslims rose up against then-President Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War, he retaliated by drying out parts of wetlands in the south of the country that had once generated farming revenues for its Shiite inhabitants.

Water is not the first resource the Islamic State group has narrowed in on as it swept over much of northern and western Iraq and parts of neighboring Syria the past months. The group has captured oilfields and pipelines in Syria and has sold off crude oil, helping fund its drive across both countries.

If it captures the dams, the militants are likely to try to use its electricity and water resources to build up support in nearby areas it controls, where residents often complain of shortages. Or it could try to snarl electricity service elsewhere.

Any disruption to the Mosul Dam “would destabilize the electricity system of northern Iraq,” added Paul Sullivan, an economist and Middle East expert at National Defense University in Washington. “This station is an integral part of the entire electricity grid of Iraq.”

​Iraqi troops push back ISIS militants in Tikrit as PM under pressure to quit

Iraqi government forces backed by helicopter gunships began an offensive on Saturday to retake Tikrit from Sunni Islamist militants, while party leaders pursued talks to end Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s rule, which is seen as highly divisive.

Politicians in Baghdad and around the world have warned that as well as taking back cities captured by insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), Iraqi authorities must quickly form a government that might be able to bring the country’s split communities together.

Since the beginning of June, ISIS jihadists have overrun mainly Sunni areas in the north and west of Iraq.

ISIS’ aim is to re-create a medieval-style caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. They believe that Shiite Muslims are heretics that should be killed, and there is already confirmation that they have staged mass executions of Shiite government soldiers, as well as civilians captured in Tikrit.

On the battlefield, Iraqi troops have been advancing on Tikrit from Samarra, and have stemmed the militant advance south towards Baghdad.

Iraqi special forces air-dropped snipers inside Tikrit University on Thursday, which had been taken over by ISIS fighters. Helicopter gunships were used against other targets in the city on Saturday, and ISIS fighters abandoned the main city administration building.

A senior Iraqi official told AFP that his security forces were coordinating with Washington, which has military advisors on the ground to help push back the militants. There were also reports of US drones flying over the city, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Qassim Atta, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, told reporters on Saturday that militant commanders are starting to struggle because “their morale has started to collapse.” He added that 29 terrorists were killed in Tikrit on Friday.

But in the south of the country, ISIS militants were on the offensive. In Jurf al-Sakhar – located 85 kilometers south of Baghdad – police sources said that 60 ISIS fighters and 15 Iraqi security forces were killed in an attack on an army camp, but the militants retreated when they could not hold their positions.

Political wrangling

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a powerful Shiite cleric, intervened Friday and urged Iraq’s political blocs to agree on a new premier, parliament speaker, and president before the newly-elected legislature meets in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia promised US Secretary of State John Kerry to use his influence to encourage Sunni Muslims to throw their weight behind a new, more inclusive Iraqi government, in an effort to undermine support for the Sunni Islamist insurgents. The king’s words are a significant shift from Riyadh’s unwillingness to support a new government unless Maliki steps down, which may reflect his disquiet about the regional implications of ISIS’ rise.

A Shiite lawmaker from the National Alliance, which groups all Shiite Muslim parties, said that a session of the Alliance – including Maliki’s State of Law party – would be held throughout the weekend and that a number of Sunni political parties would also meet later on Saturday.

The next 72 hours are very important to come up with an agreement to push the political process forward,” the lawmaker, who asked to be kept anonymous, told Reuters.

Iraq’s Sunnis accuse Maliki of pushing them aside and repressing their community, which has led many armed Sunni tribes to support the hardline ISIS insurgency.

The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region has also said that Maliki should go. Maliki’s party won the most seats in the April election and was pushing for a third term before the ISIS offensive began. Now, some senior officials in his party say there is a possibility of him being replaced.

“It’s a card game and State of Law plays a poker game very well. For the Prime Minster, it will go down to the wire,” one official told Reuters.

Meanwhile, on the Iraq-Syria border, other Islamist rebels have challenged ISIS’ grip on power and have launched a counter-offensive on the border town of Albu Kamal.

Maliki rejects calls for emergency government

Nouri al-Maliki , in his weekly address, urged political parties to put aside their differences.

BAGHDAD – Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday rejected demands from rival politicians for an emergency national unity government, as al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents gained more ground, assaulting a former U.S. air base and pushing toward one of the country’s largest dams.

In his weekly address to the nation, he described such efforts as a “rebellion” against the constitution. The United States is pressing Iraq to create a more inclusive government, urging Maliki, a Shiite, to reach out to the country’s disaffected Sunni Muslim minority.

With the country’s conflict expanding, Baghdad is locked in a period of intense political maneuvering that could result in Maliki’s loss of the premiership. Given the violence, he is likely to struggle to form a government although his party won the largest share of the vote in April parliamentary elections, analysts said.

Despite his outright rejection of a “national salvation” government demanded by politicians, including the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, he struck a somewhat conciliatory tone in his speech. He urged political parties to lay aside their differences before the first session of Iraq’s newly elected parliament, expected to take place next week.

“We desperately need a united national stance to defy terrorism,” Maliki said.

His speech, delivered two days after he met with Secretary of State John Kerry, contrasted with his public declarations earlier in the crisis, which have appealed to religious motivations and called for citizens to protect the country’s Shiite Muslim shrines.

Maliki issued the appeal as Sunni Muslim militants attacked one of Iraq’s largest air bases and seized several small oil fields north of the capital, news agencies reported.

In addition, insurgents were advancing on the Haditha Dam and hydroelectric power plant on the Euphrates River about 175 miles northwest of Baghdad.

There were also reports that Iran is stepping up its intervention on behalf of Maliki, secretly supplying military equipment and using drones to conduct aerial surveillance.

In Brussels, where he attended NATO meetings Wednesday, Kerry said the conflict in Iraq has “been widened obviously in the last days with reports of [Iranian Revolutionary Guard] personnel, some people from Iran being engaged in Iraq, perhaps even some Syrian activities therein.”

Kerry told reporters, “That’s one of the reasons why government formation is so urgent, so that the leaders of Iraq can begin to make the decisions necessary to protect Iraq without outside forces moving to fill a vacuum.”

Striking a positive note, Kerry also said that he was not sure what Maliki meant in rejecting a “salvation government” but that the rest of Maliki’s address was in line with what he pledged to do in their meeting.

Official: Intelligence community warned about ‘growing’ ISIS threat in Iraq

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The U.S. intelligence community warned about the “growing threat” from Sunni militants in Iraq since the beginning of the year, a senior intelligence official said Tuesday — a claim that challenges assertions by top administration officials that they were caught off guard by the capture of key Iraqi cities.

Earlier Tuesday, in an interview with Fox News, Secretary of State John Kerry said “nobody expected” Iraqi security forces to be decisively driven out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as they were earlier this month in Mosul.

But in a separate briefing with reporters Tuesday afternoon, the senior intelligence official said the intelligence community had warned about the ISIS threat.

“During the past year, the intelligence community has provided strategic warning of Iraq’s deteriorating security situation,” the official said. “We routinely highlighted (ISIS’) growing threat in Iraq, the increasing difficulties Iraq’s security forced faced in combating (ISIS), and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq’s declining stability.”

Asked who failed to act, the official did not explain.

Offering a grave warning about the current strength of the group — which is a State Department-designated terror organization — the official also said that barring a major counteroffensive, the intelligence community assesses that ISIS is “well-positioned to keep the territory it has gained.”The official said the ISIS “strike force” now has between 3,000 and 5,000 members.

Further, the official said ISIS, as a former Al Qaeda affiliate, has the “aspiration and intent” to target U.S. interests. Asked if Americans have joined, the intelligence official said it “stands to reason that Americans have joined.”

The information from the intelligence community adds to the picture of what is known about the ISIS threat, and what might have been known in the weeks and months before its militants seized Mosul and other northern cities and towns.

Kerry, speaking with Fox News on Tuesday in the middle of a multi-country swing through the Middle East and Europe as he tries to calm the sectarian crisis in Iraq, pushed back on the notion that more could have been done from a Washington perspective to prevent the takeovers. Pressed on whether the fall of Mosul and other cities to Sunni militants marks an intelligence failure, Kerry said nobody could have predicted Iraqi security forces would have deserted.

“We don’t have people embedded in those units, and so obviously nobody knew that. I think everybody in Iraq was surprised. People were surprised everywhere,” he said.

The secretary noted that the U.S. and Iraq did not sign a formal agreement allowing troops to stay in the country past 2011, so “we didn’t have eyes in there.”

“But the Iraqis didn’t even have a sense of what was happening,” Kerry said.

When asked what the U.S. did to shore up Mosul, after seeing other Iraqi cities fall earlier this year, Kerry added: “In the end, the Iraqis are responsible for their defense, and nobody expected wholesale desertion and wholesale betrayal, in a sense, by some leaders who literally either signed up with the guys who came in or walked away from their posts and put on their civilian clothes.

“No, nobody expected that.”

But aside from the apparent warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, reports in The Telegraph and Daily Beast claim that Kurdish sources did warn American and British officials that ISIS was gaining strength and ready to advance, but it “fell on deaf ears.”

A senior lieutenant to Lahur Talabani, head of Kurdish intelligence, reportedly told The Daily Beast that the Kurds passed on warnings about a possible takeover of Mosul to British and U.S. government officials.

“We knew exactly what strategy they were going to use, we knew the military planners,” the official said.

The Telegraph reported that Washington and London got warnings months ago about Sunni militant plans to try and take over the northwestern region of Iraq. The Kurds reportedly had been monitoring developments on their own.

At this stage, though, the question for Kerry and the Obama administration is how far they are willing to go to shore up the embattled Iraqi government. Kerry, in Baghdad a day earlier, pressed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to proceed with the formation of a new government — Iraq’s parliament is set to begin this process next week.

In the meantime, President Obama has committed up to 300 U.S. military advisers to help Iraq’s government fend off ISIS forces. The administration continues to weigh whether to authorize airstrikes.

via Official: Intelligence community warned about ‘growing’ ISIS threat in Iraq | Fox News.

Shiite militia parade in Baghdade in show of govt’s might as ISIS overruns border town

Volunteers of the newly formed 'Peace Brigades' participate in a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, in defiance of ISIS

Volunteers of the newly formed ‘Peace Brigades’ participate in a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, in defiance of ISIS

Thousands of Shiite militia marched through Baghdad, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities in a show of the government’s force. However, extremists are just winning more ground: the Sunni fighters of ISIS have seized a town on the border with Syria.

Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to take part in a military parade on Saturday. Hosts of Shiite Iraqis answered the call, flooding the center of Baghdad and other cities across the country.

Around 50,000 people joined the rally in the country’s capital, some armed with weapons including Kalashnikov assault rifles, shotguns, Dragunov sniper rifles, light machineguns and rocket launchers. They brandished banners with slogans reading “We sacrifice for you, oh Iraq,” “No, no to terrorism,” and “No, no to America.”

As volunteers gathered in Baghdad, Sunni militants led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) pushed back faltering government forces, seizing control of crucial towns on the Iraq-Syria border. Killing over 30 members of the Iraqi security forces, ISIS fighters attacked the town of al-Qaima and succeeded in taking over the town, which is home to 250,000, and the border crossing to neighboring Syria.

The militant group also made significant gains on the other side of the frontier, bringing them closer to accomplishing their aim of creating an Islamic state straddling national borders.

The border town is located on a strategic supply route, the loss of which would be a significant blow to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. ISIS has capitalized on the ongoing civil war in Syria to gather weapons and thousands of fresh recruits from around the world. Full control of the border zone would mean potential free passage from Syria into Iraq for the militants.

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To counter the swelling ranks of the Sunni militants, Iraq’s government has officially asked the White House to deploy airstrikes in the region. In response, the White House issued a statement, saying there was no purely military solution to Iraq’s problems, and that it would consider a range of options.

As a preliminary measure, the US has deployed 300 additional military personnel to Baghdad to “assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

Obama also voiced criticism of Iraq’s leadership, suggesting that Al-Maliki has endangered the country by ignoring the needs of the country’s Sunni population.

“I don’t think that there’s any secret that, right now at least, there is deep division between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders,” Obama said Thursday. In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that Washington was preparing to consult with the Iranian government over a solution to the crisis in Iraq.

The ISIS-led militants began to show signs of fragmentation on Saturday as fighters from ISIS and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandiyah (JRTN) turned on each other in Kirkuk. At least 17 people were killed in the ensuing violence.

Putin reiterates Russia’s support to Iraq government efforts to do away with terrorists

Extremist activities in Syria have gained a trans-border character and threaten security of the entire region, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a telephone conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday, the Kremlin press service reported.

Maliki informed the Russian president about the development of the military political situation in Iraq and the government’s efforts to fight against terrorist groups that have stepped up their activities in the north of the country,” the press service said.

The Russian leader reiterated Russia’s all-round support to efforts of the Iraqi government to clear the republic of terrorists.

The sides also discussed issues of bilateral cooperation of mutual interest.

Iraq crisis exclusive : US rules out military action until PM Nouri al-Maliki stands down

The US has told senior Iraqi officials that the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must leave office if it is to intervene militarily to stop the advance of Sunni extremists, The Independent has learnt. The Sunni community sees Mr Maliki as the main architect of its oppression and the Americans believe there can be no national reconciliation between Sunni and Shia unless he ceases to be leader of the country.

Mr Maliki is showing every sign of wanting to cling to power despite the disasters of the past 10 days during which his army of 350,000 men, on which $41.6bn (£24.5bn) has been spent by Iraq since 2011, has disintegrated after being attacked by a far less numerous foe. He has blamed Saudi Arabia, the Kurds and treacherous generals, but has offered no real explanation nor taken responsibility for the defeat.

Mr Maliki was effectively appointed by the US in 2006 but is today seen as being under the influence of Iran. The Iranian leadership is divided on whether or not to withdraw its support from Mr Maliki and see Shia dominance and Iranian power in Iraq diluted. Iranian commanders have taken over central direction of the Iraqi army, but Iraqi politicians do not believe that Iran has a coherent plan to rescue the Baghdad government from the crisis. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said that “the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to defend the holy [Shia] shrines”. These are at Samarra in the front line, al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad and Najaf and Karbala further south.

The most effective shape for US military support would be air strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) fighters called in by American forward air controllers operating with Iraqi units. Drones would be largely useless against an elusive and lightly armed enemy, though US air strikes of any type would raise the morale of the Iraqi military and the Shia population.

There is a constitutional way of getting rid of Mr Maliki when the Iraqi parliament meets before the end of June. It must chose a speaker and a president who will then ask a member of the largest party to form a government. It is unlikely that Mr Maliki would be chosen Prime Minister as other parties unite against him. “It is impossible that he should serve a third term,” said an Iraq politician who did not want to be named.

But parliamentary procedures may be too slow to remove Mr Maliki and put in place a new Iraqi leadership capable of withstanding an uprising by Iraq’s five or six million Sunni population, led by Isis but including seven or eight other armed groups. The pace of the Isis advance has slowed north of Baghdad in recent days, but it is still capturing Sunni towns and villages where much of the armed male population joins it. The original force of Isis fighters, sometimes put at 10,000 men, is thereby multiplied many times.

This happened in the Sunni town of Hibhib near Baquba, which is 40 miles north-east of Baghdad, over the last two days. A local woman speaking by phone said: “Less than 100 Daesh [Isis] came into the town and soon became more than 2,000 armed men. Even teenagers aged 14 and 15 are carrying rifles and setting up checkpoints.”

The general support for the Sunni revolt in northern and western Iraq will make it very difficult for any counter-offensive, which would be facing far more opponents than Isis originally fielded. Isis now controls almost all the Euphrates valley from Fallujah west of Baghdad through western Iraq and eastern Syria as far as the Turkish border. Any long-term campaign against Isis by the Iraqi government backed by US air power would require air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq. The two countries have effectively become a single battlefield.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

The success or failure of the US and Mr Maliki’s domestic opponents in replacing him in the next few weeks will be crucial in determining the future of the conflict. A chief reason why Isis, Sunni armed groups and the Sunni population have been able to form a loose common front against the government is the antipathy of the Sunni population to Mr Maliki. They see him as systematically reducing them to second-class citizens and putting as many as 100,000 in jail, with prisoners often held because of confessions extorted by torture or without any charge at all. Hostility to Mr Maliki provides part of the glue that holds the Sunni coalition together.

But the Iraqi government’s problems are immediate and require intelligent leadership which continues to be lacking. This was shown in Mosul last week where two senior generals took off their uniforms and fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s semi-independent zone. Overall, some 230,000 soldiers are reported to have deserted their units.

Mr Maliki continues to take many military decisions himself. Iraqi sources say that just before Isis stormed Tal Afar, a Shia Turkoman city of 300,000 west of Mosul, last weekend the KRG President Masoud Barzani sent a message to Mr Maliki offering to send peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers) to defend it. Mr Maliki rejected the proposal. Such peshmerga as were in Tal Afar were withdrawn and Isis took over.

Unless it is too over-extended to make further advances, Isis may think it in its interests to strike quickly at Baghdad before the US and Iran decide what to do and while the political and military leadership in Baghdad is in turmoil. The Shia are the majority in the capital but there are Sunni enclaves in west Baghdad which might rise up.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce meets with Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Luqman Abd al-Rahim Fayli on Capitol Hill (Getty)

Living conditions all over northern and central Iraq will get more difficult as the economic unity of the country is broken. Baghdadis mostly cook on bottled propane gas, but this can no longer be supplied from Kirkuk because the road is cut by Isis. The insurgents have also taken three-quarters of Baiji refinery according an official speaking from inside the plant. The government’s version of what has happened at Baiji according to state television is that 44 Isis fighters were killed and survivors fled.

Mr Maliki’s best chance of staving off calls for his departure is that the threat to Baghdad will get so severe that Washington and Tehran will have to give support even if he stays. He has already been strengthened by the Shia clerical leadership in Najaf calling for people to join the Iraqi army. Not everything that has gone wrong in Iraq is Mr Maliki’s fault, but his responsibility for the present catastrophe is too great for him to play a positive role in averting a sectarian civil war.

 The Independent.

Breaking News – Iraq formally asks US to launch air strikes against rebels

top US military commander Gen Martin Dempsey

Iraq has formally called on the US to launch air strikes against jihadist militants who have seized several key cities over the past week.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” confirmed top US military commander Gen Martin Dempsey in front of US senators.

Earlier the Sunni insurgents launched an attack on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji north of Baghdad.

Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki earlier urged Iraqis to unite against the militants.

Government forces are battling to push back ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and its Sunni Muslim allies in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, after the militants overran the second city, Mosul, last week.

US President Barack Obama is due to discuss the Iraq crisis with senior Congress members on Wednesday.

Ahead of the meeting Senate leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said he did not “support in any way” getting American troops involved in the Iraqi “civil war”.

But Gen Dempsey told a Senate panel that it was in America’s “national interest to counter [ISIS] wherever we find them”.

In other developments:

Militants, Iraq security forces clash at country’s largest oil refinery

Baiji oil refinery, 180km (112 miles) north of Baghdad

Baiji oil refinery, 180km (112 miles) north of Baghdad

An official at Iraq’s largest domestic oil refinery says Sunni militants have taken over 75 percent of the facility following clashes with Iraqi security forces.

“The militants have managed to break in to the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” an official speaking from inside the refinery in Beiji told Reuters on Wednesday.

A state oil official told The Wall Street Journal that two fuel-storage tanks were in flames after hours of fighting before dawn Wednesday, some 155 miles north of the capital, Baghdad. The official said militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targeted the oil refinery with mortars and machine guns.

In response, Iraqi security forces and helicopter gunships bombarded positions of the militants inside the refinery, another state oil official added.

But Iraq’s government denied reports that the facility has been overrun.

Iraq’s chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told The Associated Press that government forces repelled the siege.

Al-Moussawi said 40 attackers were killed in fighting there overnight and early Wednesday. There was no independent confirmation either of his claims or those of the Iraqi military’s retaking neighborhoods in Tal Afar. The areas are in territories held by insurgents that journalists have not been able to access.

The Beiji refinery was shut down on Tuesday and workers were flown out by helicopter, according to Reuters.

The 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 Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq.

Meanwhile, in a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struck an optimistic tone and vowed to teach the attackers a “lesson” — even though Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in the wake of the initial militant offensive.

“We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back,” al-Maliki said.

The campaign by the Al Qaeda-inspired ISIS has raised the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007. The relentless violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion now haunts those trying to decide how to respond.

At the White House, President Barack Obama was to brief lawmakers later Wednesday on what options the U.S. could take.

The U.S. is pressing al-Maliki to undermine the insurgency by making overtures to Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, which has long complained of discrimination by al-Maliki’s government and excesses by his Shiite-led security forces.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has consistently rejected charges of bias against the Sunnis and has in recent days been stressing the notion that the threat posed by the Islamic State will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations. He appeared Tuesday night on television with Sunni leaders and politicians as a sign of solidarity.

The prime minister’s relatively upbeat assessment came as the Iraqi military said its forces regained parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, which Islamic State fighters captured on Monday. Its closeness to the Syrian border strengthens the Islamic State’s plan to carve out an Islamic caliphate, or state, stretching across parts of the two countries.

The Indian government also said Wednesday that 40 Indian construction workers have been kidnapped near Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which ISIS and allied Sunni fighters captured last week. Roughly 10,000 Indian citizens work and live in Iraq, with only about 100 in violent, insecure areas like Mosul, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.

And the Turkish Foreign Ministry said its diplomats were investigating a Turkish media report that militants abducted 60 foreign construction workers, including some 15 Turks, near the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk.

Ethnic Kurds now control Kirkuk, moving to fill a vacuum after the flight of Iraqi soldiers. They too are battling the Sunni extremist militants.

On Wednesday, Kurdish security and hospital officials said that fighting has been raging since morning between Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga and militants who are trying to take the town of Jalula, in the restive Diyala province some 80 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Two civilians were killed and six peshmerga fighters were wounded, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The Sunni militants of the Islamic State have vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since U.S. troops left in late 2011. The three cities are home to some of the most revered Shiite shrines. The Islamic State also has tried to capture Samarra, a city north of Baghdad and home to another major Shiite shrine.

Iran, a neighboring Shiite country, already has seen thousands volunteer to defend the shrines. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking Wednesday to a crowd gathered at a stadium near his country’s border with Iraq, said that the Islami State and others would be defeated.

“We declare to all superpowers, their mercenaries, murderers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not miss any effort in protecting these sacred sites,” Rouhani said.

The U.S. and Iran are discussing how the longtime foes might cooperate to ease the threat from the Al Qaeda-linked militants. Still, the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might coordinate military operations in Iraq.

Some 275 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure U.S. assets as Obama also considers an array of options.

Who are the major players in the Iraq crisis?

Nouri al-Maliki

As Iraq edges toward civil war, here’s a look at major players and groups in the crisis.

Insurgents

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a Sunni jihadist group that has its roots in the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents that formed the backbone of the resistance against U.S. forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. It has since expanded operations into Syria, where it is fighting the regime of Bashar Assad, and has broken formal ties with al-Qaeda. It embraces a radical form of Islam and consists of battle-hardened fighters.

Earlier this year, the group ransacked Fallujah and Ramadi, two influential Sunni cities in western Iraq. It has managed to hold much of Fallujah and portions of Ramadi. More recently it seized parts of Mosul and was positioned to edge toward Baghdad.

ISIL is also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Nouri al-Maliki

The prime minister of Iraq leads a Shiite dominated government that has alienated many of the Sunnis in Iraq over the past several years. Maliki has been criticized for not taking more steps to include rival Sunni leaders in his government.

Shiites are the majority sect in Iraq, but for most of Iraq’s history they were oppressed by the Sunnis, who dominated the government. Saddam Hussein and his key leaders were all Sunnis. Shiite leaders during that time were driven into exile.

Iraq’s armed forces

Organized, trained and, to some extent, equipped by the United States, the Iraqi military was a competent force when the United States pulled all its forces out in 2011.

But over the past several years Maliki has been accused of appointing political cronies to key leadership positions and the military has ceased to conduct regular training. Sunnis have said the army is little more than another Shiite militia and have little confidence in its ability to protect them. Many units simply collapsed when insurgents attacked Mosul and other cities in Iraq.

Shiite militias

During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Shiite militias, some of which were backed by Iran, grew to become powerful forces. Among the strongest such militias is the Mahdi Army, a group loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Shiite militias at various times attacked U.S. forces and also participated in sectarian warfare in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, which peaked in 2006. Most of the insurgent gains were in Sunni or mixed areas. Shiite militias will likely try to protect Shiite neighborhoods if insurgents attempt to move into Baghdad.