U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Ukraine in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington. Obama travels across the Atlantic next week and will seek a cohesive stance from European leaders unnerved by Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
U.S. President Barack Obama will speak about the situation in Iraq from the White House Thursday afternoon.
His comments will follow a meeting with his national security team where he is expected to discuss U.S. options for responding to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The administration has been weighing whether to press the Shia prime minister in Baghdad to step down in a last-ditch effort to prevent disgruntled Sunnis from igniting a civil war.
A U.S. official says Obama is expected to announce the deployment of about 100 special operations forces to Iraq to help train and advise the Iraqi forces. The official insisted on anonymity because this person was not authorized to publicly discuss the plan ahead of Obama's announcement.
In Iraq, Sunni militants hung their black banners on watchtowers at Iraq's largest oil refinery, a witness said Thursday, suggesting an ever-increasing stranglehold on the vital facility by insurgents who have seized vast territories across the country's north. A top Iraqi security official and a militant fighting for control of the plant said the government still held it.
The fighting at Beiji, some 250 kilometres north of Baghdad, comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. While Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.
The Iraqi witness, who drove past the sprawling Beiji refinery, said militants also manned checkpoints around it. He said he saw a huge fire in one of its tankers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
One of the militants laying siege to the refinery confirmed by telephone that the facility remained in government hands and blamed the deployment of helicopter gunships for what he said their failure to capture it. The militant identified himself only by his alias, AbuAnas, but there was no way to verify his identity or location. The security official, however, said as many as four helicopter gunships have been deployed over the facility since daybreak.
The Iraqi security official said the government force protecting the refinery was still inside Thursday and that they were in regular contact with Baghdad. The refinery's workers had been evacuated to nearby villages, he said.
Helicopter gunships flew over the facility to stop any militant advance, the official said. The insurgents took over a building just outside the refinery and were using it to fire at the government force, he said.
He said the insurgents took over a building just outside the refinery and were using it to fire at the government force, he said.
The army officer in charge of protecting the refinery, Col. Ali al-Qureishi, told state-run Iraqiya television by telephone that the facility remained under his control. He said his forces had killed nearly 100 militants since Tuesday.
Hussain al-Shahristani, Iraq's deputy prime minister in charge of energy affairs, praised "the heroic sons of the armed forces" at the refinery in a statement.
They "are putting up a spirited fight to prevent the terrorists from reaching its walls despite the ferocity of the repeated attacks," he said.
The Beiji refinery accounts for just over a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity — all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things like gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations. Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq. It produces around 300,000 barrels per day.
Gas shortage felt in northern city
CBC correspondent Nahlah Ayed said from the northern city of Erbil that the refinery attack is already having a noticeable impact there.
Iraqis are lining up for gasoline for hours, she said. The prices have risen and gas is being limited to about 30 litres per person.
"It is having a real impact on the ground here, and people are nervous across the country," she said.
The campaign by the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State militants has raised the spectre of the sectarian warfare since they seized swaths of northern Iraq earlier this month.
In another northern city, Kirkuk, CBC correspondent Sasa Petricic said the city itself is under control of the Kurdish military, but there is fighting in villages just a few kilometres away.
Sunni militants are fighting both the Kurdish military and Iraqi soldiers, he said.
The city is tense, but life goes on, said Petricic. "People are getting their hair cut, people are buying things, they are not leaving the city."
Amid the offensive, Iraq formally asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against positions of the Islamic State, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said.
'The entire enterprise is at risk'
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the U.S. had received a request for air power to stop the militants, but highlighted the uncertain political situation in Iraq.
"The entire enterprise is at risk as long as this political situation is in flux," told a Senate panel Wednesday. He added that some Iraqi security forces had backed down when confronted by the militants because they had "simply lost faith" in the central government in Baghdad.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, home to some of the sect's most revered shrines, in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left in late 2011. The militants also have tried to capture Samarra, a city north of Baghdad and home to another major Shia shrine.
Thursday, the bullet-riddled bodies of four handcuffed men, presumably Sunnis, were discovered in the Shia Baghdad district of Abu Dashir, police and morgue officials said. A roadside bomb hit a police patrol on a highway in the east of the city, killing two police officers and wounding two, police and hospital officials said.
A car bomb also exploded inside a parking lot in Baghdad's southeastern Shia neighbourhood of New Baghdad, killing three people and wounding seven, the officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the journalists.