Iraq’s premier has vowed to “face terrorism” and insisted security forces had suffered a “setback” rather than defeat, as militants pressing a major offensive attacked the country’s largest oil refinery.
The militants also seized three villages in north Iraq on Wednesday, an Iraqi official said, while India said 40 of its nationals had been kidnapped in Mosul city, overrun last week by the insurgents.
“We will face terrorism and bring down the conspiracy,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed in televised remarks, adding that “we will teach (militants) a lesson and strike them.”
He also said that the country’s security forces, which wilted in the face of a major militant offensive that in a matter of days overran all of one province and chunks of three more, had suffered a “setback” but had not been defeated.
The crisis, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, threatens to carve up the country while the assault on the Baiji oil refinery early Wednesday will likely further spook international oil markets.
The attack on the refinery complex, in Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, was launched before dawn, according to a senior official and a refinery employee.
They said tanks containing refined products caught fire and Iraqi security forces suffered casualties.
Maliki’s security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, said Iraqi forces repelled the attack in fighting which left 40 militants dead. He did not mention security force casualties.
The refinery was shut down on Tuesday due to a drop in demand caused by the militant drive, which is being spearheaded by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
World oil producers have cautiously watched the unfolding chaos in Iraq but have stressed the country’s vast crude supplies, mostly in the south, are safe – for now.
Further north, Iraqi security forces pushed into new areas of Tal Afar on Wednesday during heavy fighting with militants, a provincial councillor said.
The Shi’ite-majority town has been the scene of fierce fighting between security forces and militants for days.
But militants gained ground elsewhere, with a senior police officer saying they had moved into the Shi’ite Turkmen area of Bashir in the northern province of Kirkuk early on Wednesday.
The insurgents also seized three villages in Salaheddin province during clashes with security forces and residents that left 20 civilians dead, a local official said.
The foreign ministry in New Delhi, meanwhile, announced 40 Indian construction workers had been abducted in Mosul.
In a bid to see off the militant offensive, Maliki sacked several top security commanders on Tuesday and stood alongside several of his main rivals in a rare display of unity among the country’s fractious political leaders.
Despite the early poor performance of the security forces, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Iraqi troops, with help from Shi’ite volunteers, were “stiffening their resistance” around Baghdad.
“It certainly appears as if they have the will to defend the capital,” he said.
Washington has already deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf, but President Barack Obama has insisted a return to combat in Iraq for US soldiers is not on the cards.
Secretary of State John Kerry has, however, said that drone strikes could be used.
– Marwan Ibrahim