19 June 2014
Last updated at 11:06
Video footage from Wednesday purportedly showed smoke rising from the Baiji refinery
Iraqi government forces are battling Sunni militants for control of the country’s biggest oil refinery.
A military spokesman said troops had repelled repeated attacks by the militants, led by the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Forty assailants were killed overnight and on Wednesday, he added, denying the facility was close to being overrun.
But some workers said the militants had seized most of it and that troops were concentrated around the control room.
It comes as US President Barak Obama considers a formal request from Iraq’s government for air strikes against the militants, who have seized several northern cities and towns since last week.
ISIS-led militants launched an assault on the Baiji refinery, about 200km (130 miles) north of the capital Baghdad, early on Wednesday.
Workers trapped inside said the attackers had breached the perimeter and destroyed one of its fuel tanks. Some said they had taken control of most of the facility. Video footage showed smoke billowing from the refinery and the black flag used by ISIS flying from a building.
However, officials insisted that troops had resisted the advance.
Nearly all the 15,000 workers at the refinery and 100 foreign experts left on Tuesday when the plant was shut down in anticipation of the attack.
On Thursday morning, the remaining 250 to 300 workers were evacuated under an agreement brokered by local tribal leaders, one of the workers told the Reuters news agency.
The battle over Baiji, which supplies much of the country’s domestic fuel, has sparked fears that Iraqis will soon experience long lines at petrol pumps and electricity shortages.
BBC Arabic’s Reda El Mawy reported that there were already queues at petrol stations in the northern city of Irbil and that food prices were rising.
ISIS-led militants overran the town of Baiji last week, seizing abandoned military vehicles
The closure of Baiji has already had an impact on petrol supplies in northern Iraq
Members of Iraq’s Shia majority community have signed up as volunteers with the security forces
The UN Children’s Fund said the situation facing the 400,000 displaced people in the north was “dire”
Meanwhile, police told the BBC that ISIS-led militants had killed 13 police and Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen while capturing the village of al-Bashir, south of Kirkuk, over the past two days.
The BBC’s Richard Galpin says it seems the jihadists and their allies may be pushing towards the strategically important northern city and its nearby oil fields.
On Wednesday there were fierce clashes in the Baquba, about 60km (37 miles) north of Baghdad, as jihadists again tried to enter the city centre and seize its prison.
Shia militiamen have been sent to assist in the defence of the capital of Diyala province, which has effectively become a frontline, and the nearby city of Samarra, site of a major Shia shrine.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has tried to assure Iraqis that the momentum is shifting.
But in an interview with the BBC, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq, said religious leaders sensed “a real danger which threatens Iraq and its unity”.
The Iraqi government is awaiting President Obama’s decision on air strikes.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, warned that the US military still lacked sufficient intelligence to take action. He told a congressional hearing that pilots would have difficulty knowing who they were attacking from the air.
Asked if the intervention might come too late, Gen Dempsey said: “There is very little that could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq has failed its people. That is what has caused this problem.”
ISIS has exploited deep resentment among Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs, who have long accused Mr Maliki of discriminating against them and monopolising power.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr Maliki had not done enough to “govern inclusively and that has contributed to the situation and the crisis that we have today in Iraq”, but stopped short of calling on the prime minister to step down.
Mr Carney also said the president had not ruled out the possibility of asking Congress to authorise military action in Iraq. Officials said administration lawyers were currently looking at the legal implications of not seeking approval.
ISIS in Iraq
The rebels now control the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit
ISIS grew out of an al-Qaeda-linked organisation in Iraq
- Estimated 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria
- Joined in its offensives by other Sunni militant groups, including Saddam-era officers and soldiers, and disaffected Sunni tribal fighters
- Exploits standoff between Iraqi government and the minority Sunni Arab community, which complains that Shia Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is monopolising power
- ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an obscure figure regarded as a battlefield commander and tactician
Iraq ‘massacre’ photos: What we know
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