Sunni militants have hung their black banners on watch towers at Iraq’s largest oil refinery, a witness said on Thursday, suggesting the vital facility
had fallen to the insurgents in control of vast territories across the country’s north.
A top Iraqi security official, however, said the government still held the facility.
The fighting at Beiji, some 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, comes as Iraq has asked the US to launch airstrikes targeting militants from the Islamic
State of Iraq and the Levant.
While US President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent, officials said, in part
because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground.
The Iraqi witness who drove past the Beiji refinery, said militants also manned checkpoints around it. He said a huge fire in one of its tankers was
raging at the time. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
The Iraqi security official said the government force protecting the refinery was still inside on Thursday and that they were in regular contact with Baghdad.
The refinery’s workers had been evacuated to nearby villages, he said.
Helicopter gunships flew over the facility to stop any militant advance, the official said.
The insurgent took over a building just outside the refinery and were using it to fire at the government force, he said.
The Beiji 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.
The campaign by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State militants has raised the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, with thepopular mobilisation to fight the insurgents taking an increasingly sectarian slant, particularly after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric made a call to arms on Friday.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, home to some of the sect’s most revered shrines,
in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since US troops left in late 2011.