General: Iraq asks U.S. for air support to stop rebels
Baghdad said it wanted U.S. air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighboring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.
Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq’s southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticized the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shi’ite south and far from the fighting.
But so far Maliki’s government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi’ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi’ite militia - many believed to be funded and backed by Iran - have mobilized to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad’s million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East’s main Shi’ite 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 Shi’ite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.
The United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, recalled its ambassador from Baghdad and criticized what it called the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government.
“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.
Last week’s sudden advance by ISIL - a group that declares all Shi’ites to be heretics deserving death and has proudly distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners lying prone in mass graves - is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.
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 on Wednesday.
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.
In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood frostily before cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi’ite politician who held the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.
According to one Shi’ite Islamist working in the government, well-trained organizations Asaib Ahl Haq, Khataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organization are now being deployed alongside Iraqi military units as the main combat force.
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