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Iraq asks US for backing to counter rebels

Baghdad said it wanted US air strikes on insurgents led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq.

FILE: Baghdad said it wanted US air strikes on insurgents led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq. Picture: AFP.

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON - Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top US general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shia-led government's army.

But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.

Baghdad said it wanted US air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

"We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power," Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he said: "It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them."

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased surveillance by US drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.

In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes "to break the morale" of ISIL.

While Iraq's ally, Shia-powered Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, "everything is possible", he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

US President Barack Obama briefed congressional leaders on Wednesday on efforts to get Iraqi leaders to "set aside sectarian agendas," reviewed options for "increased security assistance" and sought their views, the White House said.

A senior administration official said afterward that Obama did not lay out a course of action at the meeting and had yet to make a final decision.

Obama is facing pressure from US lawmakers to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as failed leadership in the face of the insurgency threatening his country.

REFINERY BATTLE

Sunni fighters were in control of three-quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a week.

ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but the rebels also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.

Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticised the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shi'ite south and far from the fighting.

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Maliki to reach out to Sunnis, the minority who ran Iraq until US troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.

Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce "those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas".

But Maliki's government has so far relied almost entirely on his fellow Shias for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors.

Shia militia, many believed to be funded and backed by Iran, have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.

Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the insurgents seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.