A senior U.S. military officer confirmed Wednesday for the first time that Iraq has formally requested air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist group now threatening to overrun all of Iraq.
“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during a Wednesday morning Senate hearing.
President Obama is said to still be weighing military options.
The Guardian’s Mona Mahmood spoke by telephone with an eyewitness in the Baiji refinery “who flatly contradicts the Iraqi government’s account of having control of the local oil refinery, the country’s largest.”
Salah Majed, 35, a government employee, told the reporter Wednesday “that only one gate to the Baiji oil refinery, the northern gate, remains in the hands of the military forces.”
Majed said the Iraqi military “was on the verge of losing control of the refinery entirely,” according to the Guardian.
Two helicopters engaged in the fight Tuesday and hit a tank full of chemicals, setting the refinery on fire.
“The rebels commenced their attack from the main and southern gates of the refinery, which is guarded by many concrete walls, a few watch towers and helicopters,” the Guardian said.
The rebels want to claim the refinery for Baiji locals and end fuel shortages at Tikirit and Mosul that started a week ago, the paper said.
Those cities fell to the insurgents last week. The ministry of oil in Baghdad then ordered supplies cut to deprive the rebels of fuel.
Iraq, OPEC’s second biggest producer, pumped about 3.2 million barrels a day during the past month.
The Baiji refinery is the biggest of three in Iraq with a throughput capacity of 310,000 barrels of oil a day. It was shutdown by fighting Tuesday.
The refinery is about 50 miles north of the city of Tikrit.
By mid-day Wednesday, the price of European benchmark Brent crude was nearing $114.
Iraq’s oil output target of 4 million barrels per day by the end of the year is now seen at risk because of the fighting.