U.S. President Barack Obama met his national security team before making a statement on Iraq on Thursday. Meanwhile, Iraqi government forces battled Sunni militants for control of the country’s biggest refinery. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is waiting for a U.S. response to an appeal for air strikes to contain the threat to Baghdad.
Obama said the U.S. is prepared to take targeted military actions in Iraq if they would help fight a growing threat from extremist militants. He also said the U.S. is ready to send as many as 300 military advisers to Iraq. The United States is forming joint operations centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq, and has increased its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, Obama added.
However, Obama also stressed that American combat troops would not be returning to Iraq.
Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama still had “all options” open. However, regional allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia echoed concern in Washington about the risk of U.S. action serving only to inflame the sectarian war.
The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shi’ite-led government held off insurgents and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
A government spokesman said around noon (0900 GMT) that its forces were in “complete control” but a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing and militants were still present.
A day after the government publicly appealed for U.S. air power, there were indications Washington is skeptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO ally, said the United States “does not view such attacks positively”, given the risk to civilians. A Saudi source said that Western powers agreed with Riyadh, the main Sunni state in the region, that what was needed was political change, not outside intervention, to heal sectarian division that has widened under Maliki.
Video aired by Al-Arabiya television showed smoke billowing from the Baiji plant and the black flag used by ISIL flying from a building. Workers who had been inside the complex, which spreads for miles close to the Tigris river, said Sunni militants seemed to hold most of the compound in early morning and that security forces were concentrated around the refinery’s control room.
The 250-300 remaining staff were evacuated early on Thursday, one of those workers said by telephone. Military helicopters had attacked militant positions overnight, the worker added.
Report compiled with information from Reuters.