A Shia woman expresses her willingness to fight Sunni militants in Najaf, Iraq. (AFP)
Baghdad/Washington, June 18 (Reuters): Iraq has asked the US for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top US general said today, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shia-led government’s army.
However, Gen. 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 Syria (ISIS), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq in Baiji and the President of Iran vowed today to defend Shia holy sites in Iraq.
Speaking on live television to a crowd, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that Tehran was prepared to mobilise. “Regarding the holy Shia shines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” he said.
He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although he also emphasised that Iraqis were prepared to defend themselves: “Thanks be to God, I’ll tell the dear people of Iran that veterans and various forces — Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all over Iraq — are ready for sacrifice.”
“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the US should honour that request, he answered indirectly, saying: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIS wherever we find them.”
In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIS.
While Iran had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government,“everything is possible”, Zebari told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.
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.
ISIS aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on medieval 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 per cent of its staff. He criticised the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shia south and far from the fighting. Washington and other western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis.
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 today Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas”.
But so far Maliki’s government has 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 US at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.
Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift dating to the 7th century.
Last week’s sudden advance by ISIS — a group that declares all Shias to be heretics deserving death and has proudly distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners lying prone in mass graves — is a test for President Barack Obama, who pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011.
Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops but is considering other military options to help defend Baghdad, and US officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy.
But US and other international officials insist Maliki must do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among Sunnis, the minority that ran Iraq until US troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.