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Iraq fights militants around oil refinery

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 18 2014 12:34 p.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, June 17, 2014 photo, Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents, in Baghdad's Sadr city, Iraq. Thousands of Shiites from Baghdad and across southern Iraq answered an urgent call to arms Saturday, joining security forces to fight the Islamic militants who have captured large swaths of territory north of the capital and now imperil a city with a much-revered religious shrine.

Karim Kadim, Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces battled insurgents targeting the country's main oil refinery and said they regained partial control of a city near the Syrian border Wednesday, trying to blunt a weeklong offensive by Sunni militants who diplomats fear may have also seized some 100 foreign workers.

In a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struck an optimistic tone and vowed to teach the attackers a "lesson" — even though Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in the wake of the initial militant offensive.

"We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back," al-Maliki said.

The campaign by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has raised the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007. The relentless violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion now haunts those trying to decide how to respond.

At the White House, President Barack Obama was to brief lawmakers later Wednesday on what options the U.S. could pursue.

The U.S. is pressing al-Maliki to undermine the insurgency by making overtures to Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority, which has long complained of discrimination by al-Maliki's government and excesses by his Shiite-led security forces.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has consistently rejected charges of bias against the Sunnis and has in recent days been stressing the notion that the threat posed by the Islamic State will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations. He appeared Tuesday night on television with Sunni leaders and politicians as a sign of solidarity.

The prime minister's relatively upbeat assessment came as the Iraqi military said its forces regained parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, which Islamic State fighters captured on Monday. Its closeness 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.

It also came hours after the chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said government forces repelled an attack by militants on the country's largest oil refinery at Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad.

Al-Moussawi said 40 attackers were killed in fighting there overnight and early Wednesday. Video footage posted online shows smoke billowing in the background from an area near the refinery. The video appears genuine and corresponds to Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.

There was no independent confirmation either of al-Moussawi's claims or those of the Iraqi military's retaking neighborhoods in Tal Afar. The areas are in territories held by insurgents that journalists have not been able to access.

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.

Meanwhile, the Indian government said 40 Indian construction workers have been seized near Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which ISIL and allied Sunni fighters captured last week. Roughly 10,000 Indian citizens work and live in Iraq, with only about 100 in violent, insecure areas like Mosul, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.

And the Turkish Foreign Ministry said its diplomats were 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.

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