By SAMEER N. YACOUB
Iraq asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes to beat back militants holding vast territories across its north, a decision Washington mulled over as insurgents pressed an assault on the country's largest oil refinery.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday briefed leaders of Congress on options for quelling the insurgency by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which launched an offensive across Iraq more than a week ago. While 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.
Instead, the U.S. pushed Iraq to present its people a clear coalition to fight the militants, with Vice President Joe Biden offering praise Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders as a means to tamper the sectarian anger roiling the country. It's unclear whether that will work, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has faced widespread dissatisfaction from its people despite coming out ahead recent parliamentary elections.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has rejected charges of bias and instead said the crisis has led Iraqis to rediscover "national unity."
"I tell all the brothers there have been negative practices by members of the military, civilians and militiamen, but that is not what we should be discussing," al-Maliki said. "Our effort should not be focused here and leave the larger objective of defeating" the militants
Still, al-Maliki's outreach remain largely rhetoric, with no concrete action to bridge differences with Sunnis and Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the prime minister over their right to independently export oil and over territorial claims.
Meanwhile, violence continued Thursday as a car bomb exploded inside a parking lot in Baghdad's southeastern Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, killing three people and wounding seven, police and hospital officials said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that his country had formally asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against positions of the Islamic State.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the U.S. had received a request for air power to stop the militants, but highlighted the uncertain political situation in Iraq.
"The entire enterprise is at risk as long as this political situation is in flux," told a Senate panel Wednesday. He added that some Iraqi security forces had backed down when confronted by the militants because they had "simply lost faith" in the central government in Baghdad.
The discussions over tactics came as Iraq's military said government forces had repelled repeated attacks by the militants on the country's largest oil refinery and retaken parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border.
The chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said Iraqi army troops had defended the refinery at Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, and 40 attackers were killed in fighting there overnight and early Wednesday.
An employee at the oil refinery reached by The Associated Press late Wednesday also said the facility remained in government hands, though one of its fuel tanks was on fire after it was apparently hit by a mortar shell fired by the militants. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists.
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.
There was no independent confirmation of the military's claims about the Beiji refinery or that its forces had retaken neighborhoods in Tal Afar, which Sunni fighters captured Monday. Both are in territories held by insurgents that journalists have not been able to access. Tal Afar's proximity to the Syrian border strengthens the Islamic State's plan to carve out an Islamic caliphate, or state, stretching across parts of the two countries.
The Iraqi crisis' growing sectarian nature — which al-Maliki vehemently denies — caught the attention of United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon.
"The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq is deeply alarming and increases the sectarian tensions in the region," Ban said. "It is imperative that acts of reprisal be avoided as they can only intensify the cycle of violence."
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 the popular mobilization 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 U.S. troops left in late 2011. The militants also have tried to capture Samarra, a city north of Baghdad and home to another major Shiite shrine.
On Wednesday, a bomb blast killed four and wounded 11 in the mostly Sunni district of Ghazaliyah in western Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the government in India said 40 construction workers have been seized near Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which Sunni fighters captured last week.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said its diplomats were also investigating a Turkish media report that militants grabbed 60 foreign construction workers, including some 15 Turks, near the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk.
Ethnic Kurds now control Kirkuk, moving to fill a vacuum after the flight of Iraqi soldiers. They too are battling the Sunni extremist militants.
Republicans continued to insist Wednesday that Obama bore the blame for allowing the insurgency to strengthen because of his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in late 2011 after more than eight years of war. Washington and Baghdad failed to reach a security agreement that would have allowed American forces to stay longer.