BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships battled Sunni militants for a third day on Thursday for control of Iraq's largest oil refinery, the loss of which would be a devastating symbol of the Baghdad government's powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West.
The two sides held different parts of the sprawling Beiji facility, which extends over several square kilometers of desert. The facility accounts for just over a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity and goes toward domestic consumption for things like gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations.
The militants, led by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, clearly hope to get millions of dollars in revenue from operating the refinery — as they did for a while after seizing oil fields in neighboring Syria. More broadly, however, capturing the facility could weaken Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's hold on power by calling into question his ability to stop the militants' advance anywhere in Iraq.
In the strongest sign yet of U.S. doubts about Iraq's stability, the Obama administration is weighing whether to press the Shiite prime minister to step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent disgruntled Sunnis from igniting a civil war.
President Barack Obama is expected to discuss U.S. options for responding to the crumbling security situation in Iraq with his national security team Thursday.
The fighting at Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants. While Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not considered likely to happen soon because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.
A witness who drove past the facility said the militants manned checkpoints around it and hung their black banners on watchtowers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
One of the militants laying siege to the refinery confirmed by telephone that the facility remained in government hands, saying helicopter gunships slowed the insurgents' advance. The militant identified himself only by his alias, Abu Anas, but there was no way to verify his identity or location.
A top Iraqi security official also said the government still held the facility but that the refinery's wokers were evacuated to nearby villages.
The army officer in charge of protecting the refinery, Col. Ali al-Qureishi, told state-run Iraqiya television by telephone that the facility remained under his control. He said his forces had killed nearly 100 militants since Tuesday.
Photos obtained by The Associated Press showed the charred skeletons of destroyed army vehicles sitting by a road that runs past the facility. The photos, taken on Thursday morning, also show U.S.-made Humvees captured by the militants flying the black jihdish banners and heavily armed militants manning a checkpoint. In the background, there is heavy black smoke rising up from the refinery.
Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq. It produces around 300,000 barrels per day.
Gasoline produced at the refinery largely goes to northern Iraq and its closure has caused a shortage in the region. In Iribil in Iraq's Kurdish region, lines stretched for miles for open gas stations as angry motorists shouted at each other. Some bought fuel to power generators as electricity went out in some areas held by the Islamic State.
"Everybody in Mosul and the (northern) Nineva province is coming to Kurdistan to fill up on gas," said a resident of a village near Mosul who gave his name as Mohammed. "And they don't have enough here."
The assault on the refinery also has affected global gasoline prices, as the U.S. national average price reached $3.68 per gallon, the highest price for this time of year since 2008, the year gasoline hit its all-time high in America.
It isn't clear what the insurgents would do if they fully captured Beiji. In Syria, the Islamic State has control of some smaller oil fields, but government air raids have limited their ability to profit from them. Militants have, however, refined oil into usable fuel products at primitive refineries.
The campaign by the 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 Thursday, the bullet-riddled bodies of four handcuffed men, presumably Sunnis, were discovered in the Shiite Baghdad district of Abu Dashir, police and morgue officials said. A roadside bomb hit a police patrol on a highway in the east of the city, killing two police officers and wounding two, police and hospital officials said.
A car bomb also exploded inside a parking lot in Baghdad's southeastern Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, killing three people and wounding seven, the officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the journalists.
Al-Maliki's government has faced widespread dissatisfaction from the nation's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Still, al-Maliki's outreach remain largely rhetoric, with no concrete action to bridge differences with the Sunnis or the Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the prime minister over their right to independently export oil from their self-rule region in the north and over territorial claims.
The United Arab Emirates, a key Western ally and important regional trading partner for Iraq, temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Iraq "for consultations." The Gulf federation's foreign ministry cited deep concern at the Iraqi government's "exclusionary and sectarian policies," according to a statement carried Wednesday night by the state news agency WAM.
The statement is likely to further stoke tensions between al-Maliki's Shite-led government and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states, particularly Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia. The Baghdad government has this week accused Riyadh of meddling in its internal affairs, responding to a Saudi Cabinet statement Monday that blamed "exclusion and marginalization" policies in Iraq for the ongoing crisis. Iraq also accuses Qatar of interfering in its affairs.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Irbil, Iraq; Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Zeina Karam in Beirut and Jonathan Fahey in New York contributed to this report.