Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top US general said on Wednesday, after Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), 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.
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 under siege for a week.
A lightning advance has seen Sunni fighters rout the Shia-led government’s army and seize the main cities across the north of the country since last week.
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 by Iraq.
“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 ISIL wherever we find them.”
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In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIL.
While Iraq’s ally, Shia Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible”, he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.
ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but the rebels also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shia Prime Minister Nuri 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.
Speaking on live television to a crowd, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that Tehran was prepared to mobilise. “Regarding the holy Shia shines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” he said.