BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON: Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top US general said yesterday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shia-led government’s army.
However, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a Congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.
Baghdad said it wanted US air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.
“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he answered indirectly, saying: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIS wherever we find them.”
In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIS. Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a week. Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers.
While officials touted progress, militants seized three villages in northern Iraq and India said 40 of its nationals were kidnapped in Mosul, the city captured last week by insurgents at the onset of their offensive.
Washington has deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and sent military personnel to bolster security at its Baghdad embassy.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.
In a televised address yesterday, Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas”.
But so far Maliki’s government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shias for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shia militia — many believed to be funded and backed by Iran — have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad’s million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25bn, crumbles.
Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift dating to the 7th century.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East’s main Shia power, which fought a war against Iraq that killed a million people in the 1980s, was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq’s great shrines of Shia imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.
“Regarding the holy Shia shrines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” Rowhani said in an address to a crowd on live TV.
He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although he also said Iraqis of all sects were prepared to defend themselves: “Thanks be to God, I will tell the dear people of Iran that veterans and various forces — Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all over Iraq — are ready for sacrifice.”
Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the main Shia shrines. The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Karbala.
The Baiji refinery is the fighters’ immediate goal, the biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq, which would give them a grip on energy supply in the north where the population has complained of fuel shortages. The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown out by helicopter.
“The militants have managed to break into 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 said. The government denied the refinery had fallen. Counter-terrorism spokesman Sabah Nouri insisted forces were still in control and had killed 50 to 60 fighters and burned six or seven insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three directions.
Last week’s sudden advance by ISIS is a test for US President Barack Obama, who pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011. Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops but is considering other military options to help defend Baghdad, and US officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy.
US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back sending US troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he described as a “civil war”, before a meeting with Obama about the crisis. Reid and three other congressional leaders — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — are meeting Obama later.
Western countries fear an ISIS-controlled mini-state in Syria and Iraq could become a haven for militants who could then stage attacks around the globe.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament he disagreed “with those people who think this is nothing to do with us and if they want to have some sort of extreme Islamist regime in the middle of Iraq it won’t affect us. It will. The people in that regime, as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us at home in the UK,” Cameron said.
With battles now raging just an hour’s drive north of the capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw fierce sectarian street fighting from 2006-2007 and is still divided into Sunni and Shia districts, some protected by razor wire and concrete blast walls.