Iraq crisis: Militant attack on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery 'repelled' as Isis forces close in on Baghdad

Attacks reported within an hour's drive of capital to north-east and west

The Iraqi military says it has repelled a Sunni militant attack on the country's biggest oil refinery north of Baghdad, as fears grow for some 100 foreign workers who are believed to have been abducted.

With the country descending into chaos and fresh reports of massacres in Baquba just to the north-east of Baghdad, the assault on the site at Baiji put added strain on oil supplies already being stockpiled by frightened civilians in the capital.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) attacked the refinery late on Tuesday night from two directions, sending smoke billowing up from at least one warehouse building.

Reuters reported officials saying that at one point the militants occupied 75 per cent of the refinery, including the administration building and four watchtowers, before they were forced out on Wednesday morning.

The chief military spokesperson for the Iraqi army, Lt Gen Qassim al-Moussawi, said government forces had killed 40 Isis fighters when taking back the site, in a claim that could not be independently verified.

The plant at Baiji accounts for more than a quarter of the country’s capacity to refine oil, all of which goes towards domestic consumption for cooking oil petrol and fuelling power stations.

There are fears that foreign construction workers across northern Iraq are at risk of kidnap in the wake of the Isis advance. India's foreign ministry said 40 of its nationals appeared to been taken, while Turkey said its diplomats were investigating the reported kidnap of 60 foreigners, including some 15 Turks, near the oil city of Kirkuk.

Closer to the capital, government forces have launched a string of air strikes on the advancing militant lines. The Iraqi airforce’s capabilities are limited, however, and yesterday its ambassador to the US issued a desperate plea for the West to guarantee his country’s “air supremacy” in the conflict.

Government forces said on Tuesday that they had repelled an overnight attempt by insurgents to seize Baquba, the capital of Diyala and just a 60-minute drive from Baghdad. Some residents and officials said scores of prisoners from the local jail were killed. There were conflicting accounts of how they had died.

In the capital itself, people are on edge and a siege mentality has widely started to take hold. Sunnis worry about convoys of civilian cars with bearded men in military uniform they assume are militiamen, while Shia living in Sunni districts are moving away, worried that a new civil war is emerging along sectarian lines.

Yesterday two attacks hit Shia markets, from a suicide bomber and a car bomb, leaving 18 dead and 52 wounded according to medical and security sources.

The Sunni militants have moved at lightning speed, slicing through northern and central Iraq, capturing the towns of Hawija and Tikrit in the north before facing resistance in southern Salahaddin province, where there is a large Shia population.

More formalised battle lines are now appearing, with the insurgents held at bay at Baquba and just on the capital's outskirts beyond the airport to the west.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared in a national broadcast yesterday alongside some of his government’s most bitter Sunni critics and Kurdish leaders, in a joint appeal for unity and a demand for non-state forces to lay down their arms.

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While the public address is unlikely to change much on the ground in Iraq, it could be a signal to strategic allies the US that Maliki is willing to listen to its concerns. President Barack Obama is considering options for an intervention to help push back Isis, but does not want to create further sectarian conflict.

The deteriorating security situation in Iraq has actually encourage improved relations between the US – and UK – and Iran, with both sides considering how to cooperate against the Isis advance.

And today the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would “not hesitate” to defend Shia holy sites in Iraq itself.

Speaking to a crowd on a visit to western Lorestan province, he said: “Regarding the holy Shia shines in Karbala, Najaf, Khadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines.

“These terrorist groups, and those that fund them, both in the region and in the international arena, are nothing, and hopefully they will be put in their own place.”

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