Iraq calls for US air strikes as militants enter main refinery

BAGHDAD: Iraq asked the United States for air support in countering rebels, the top US general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the country’s army.

However, 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 Al Sham (ISIS), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq.

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

Iran says it’s ready to protect Iraqi shrines

While Iraq’s ally, Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible”, he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

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.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that his country was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq’s great shrines, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

“Regarding the holy Shia shrines in Karbala, Najaf… and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” Rouhani said in an address to a crowd on live TV.

He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although he also said Iraqis of all sects were prepared to defend themselves.

OIL REFINERY: The Baiji refinery is the ISIS fighters’ immediate goal, the biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq,

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