Rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were engaged in fighting with Iraqi security forces for control over the country's largest oil refinery on Wednesday afternoon. The Sunni fighters had launched an assault on the site around 4 a.m. local time (0100 UTC).
By Wednesday afternoon, roughly three-quarters of the refinery had fallen under ISIS control, according to an Iraqi official speaking on the condition of anonymity to Reuters news agency.
Authorities had evacuated foreigners from the refinery the night before in anticipation of the attack.
The situation was made worse by reports of a kidnapping of some 60 construction workers on Wednesday, 40 of whom were believed to have been from India and 15 from Turkey. The countries' respective foreign ministries are investigating the incident.
US and UK response
As the crisis in Iraq has grown, more leaders have expressed a willingness to take action for fear of what dangerous fruit would grow from inaction.
On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama was to meet with the majority and minority leaders of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for a classified briefing on possible military action. He has rejected the deployment of combat troops to the country, occupied by US forces from 2003 through 2011. However, President Obama is reportedly considering the use of drones or bombs.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron warned the British parliament on Wednesday of avoiding involvement in the conflict, for fear of repeating its decision to support the US invasion in 2003.
"Those people who think this is nothing to do with us…[who think] it won't affect us. It will," Cameron said.
Control of Tal Afar unclear
Since early last week, the Sunni militant group ISIS has seized control of a series of towns, the largest of which, Mosul, has two million inhabitants. The armed rebels continued their push toward the south of the country, coming within 60 kilometers (40 miles) of Baghdad on Wednesday.
The swathe of land now under ISIS control has raised fears that the al Qaeda-linked group may accomplish its goal of carving out an "Islamic emirate." The area would include parts of Syria, as well, where its own militants have infiltrated groups of fighters seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
One northern town in particular, Tal Afar, fell under ISIS power on Monday. By Wednesday, unconfirmed reports indicated that the Iraqi military was readying an offensive to retake the town, which lies roughly 60 kilometers east of the Syrian border on the road to Mosul.
According to the Associated Press, Iraqi Lieutenant General Qassim al-Moussawi claimed that the military had already driven out ISIS fighters and retaken the area. However, this information could not be immediately corroborated.
kms/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)