Iraqi government forces claim to have regained "full control" of the Beiji oil refinery, a key fuel installation north of Baghdad. But witnesses say Sunni insurgents remain and fighting is continuing.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said it regained control at Beiji on Thursday, a day after it was stormed by an array of militants who recently seized Mosul city and other parts of northern Iraq.
Beiji is Iraq's biggest refinery, accounting for more than a quarter of the country's fuel supplies and lies near the Sunni heartland of Saddam Hussein, the dictator ousted during the US-led invasion in 2003.
Some of Beiji's storage tanks were set alight Wednesday during clashes that continued sporadically into Thursday.
In televised remarks, Maliki's security spokesman said government forces were in "full control of the Beiji refinery" amid reports that they had used helicopter gunships.
However in video footage aired by Al-Arabiya television, evacuated workers said government forces were concentrated around the refinery's control center.
An Iraqi security official quoted by the news agency Associated Press (AP) said insurgents were using a building just outside the refinery to fire inside.
A motorist quoted by AP said militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had hung black banners on watchtowers at checkpoints around the facility.
By late Thursday, the two sides reportedly held different parts of the refinery, which extends over several square kilometers of desert.
The rebel assault also affected global fuel prices, with US gasoline prices reaching the highest level on Thursday since 2008.
Refueling vehicles had also become difficult in Kurdish-controlled northernn Iraq, according to DW correspondent in Kirkuk, Hannah Smith.
US confirms military request from Maliki
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, confirmed that the US had received a request the Maliki's government to conduct air strikes to stop the militant advance.
US officials, however, said targets for drone strikes would be hard to distinguish from civilians.
Asked about Baghdad's request on NBC television, US Secretary of State John Kerry said "nothing is off the table."
Kerry also said that any US decision by President Barack Obama would not be in the interest of Maliki but "focused on the people of Iraq."
A Saudi sourced quoted by Reuters ruled out "outside interference" in Iraq, saying Washington, France and Britain were agreed that the way forward lay in a "political solution."
Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia rejected an accusation by Maliki's government that Riyadh as a mainly Sunni nation was supporting the ISIS.
Iran, which has pledged to intervene if necessary in Iraq to protect Shiite holy places, has called on Sunnis and Shiites to resist militant efforts to divide Muslims.
Rebel coalition mixed
The director of the London School of Economics Middle East Center Toby Dodge told the news agency AFP that Maliki's government was faced by a mixed rebel coalition of which the ISIS had grabbed the most media attention.
"You've got unaligned groups fighting, you've got previous nationalists insurgents, you've got the Naqshabandis, and you've got ISIS," Dodge said.
The Naqshabandiyah Order, otherwise known by its Arabic acronym JRTN, is reportedly aligned with remnant figures of Saddam Hussein's former Baath party.
Maliki's Shiite-led government has long faced widespread dissatisfaction from Iraq's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
ipj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)