UPDATE 1900 GMT: President Obama has issued a statement from the White House:
While emphasizing that the US would not send in ground forces, Obama announced a series of military measures:
*Increased security at the US Embassy with some evacuation of personnel — Those steps were already taken earlier in the week.
*Increased intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance — Washington said on Wednesday that it is carrying out round-the-clock surveillance, and Navy P-3 aircraft have been seen over Baghdad.
*Increased support to Iraqi military, with joint task forces and up to 300 US advisors going into Iraq
*”Additional US military assets in the region” — The US moved an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf earlier this week.
Obama then turned to political steps, such as the convening of Parliament, and put out a warning to Prime Minister al-Maliki:
Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences to come together for Iraq’s future. National unity meetings must go forward….
Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda can bring Iraq through this crisis.
Questioned specifically about the US position on al-Maliki, Obama replied:
It’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders. I don’t think there’s any secret that there are deep divisions. We’ve said to Maliki that whether or not he is PM, all sects must feel represented in political process. There’s a sense among Sunnis that their interests have not been served.
You hear complaints that Baghdad has not reached out to tribes or been able to bring them into a unity government or single nation state. Part of the reason why we’ve seen Iraqi Security Forces crumble reflects a lack of commitment on the part of Sunni communities to work with Baghdad.
The President also blamed the Iraqi Prime Minister for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, “Maliki refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with United States or give Americans legal immunity.”
Obama distanced himself from cooperation with Iran, preferring to caution the Islamic Republic over its involvement in Iraq and criticize its activities in the region:
Iran can play a constructive role if they send the same message of inclusion that we’re sending. If Iran is coming in as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, that worsens the situation and the prospect of government formations.
Iran has heard from us, we’ve indicated to them that they need to avoid sectarian splits that might lead to civil war. We have deep differences with Iran across the board on a host of issues. What happened in Syria is the result of Iran coming in hot and heavy on one side of the conflict.
If Iran’s views of the region is solely sectarian, they will end up fighting all over the region and that isn’t in their interests. We suspect that they know that.
UPDATE 1115 GMT: Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has acknowledged the need for political change, telling a conference of foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia:
The military solution is not enough. We agree and confess that there should be a political and radical solution.
We admitted that Iraq is in danger and needs the support of Arab countries and the entire world to stop this offensive, because the risk of division and fragmentation of this country do exist. And if this happens it could be more dangerous than what is happening in Syria.
UPDATE 1110 GMT: There are reports of a fightback by Iraqi forces at the Baiji oil refinery.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi units were pushed to the northern gate of the complex by insurgents, but employees in the refinery say the Iraqi forces have retaken control, although “insurgents are still in several places in the refinery, and even in some towers”.
Military spokesman Qassim Atta said 70 insurgents have been killed.
However, another witness said insurgents have hung black banners on the watchtowers and are maintaining checkpoints around the facility.
UPDATE 0900 GMT: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office has rejected any idea of his resignation, amid US pressure for political “reform” and “unity”.
Spokesman Zuhair al-Nahar said it was up to the Iraqi people and politicians to choose their Prime Minister, who had received the largest share of the vote in April’s Parliamentary elections.
Speaking with the BBC, al-Nahar said the West should support military operations against insurgents rather than demand a change of government, “Our focus needs to be on urgent action — air support, logistic support, counter intelligence support to defeat these terrorists who are posing a real danger to the stability of Iraq, to the whole region, and…(to) the UK.”
He called for immediate airstrikes: “Every day makes a difference….Support needs to come as soon as possible before it’s too late.”
The al-Maliki Government formally requested US airstrikes on Wednesday, as insurgents took over one of Iraq’s three oil refineries.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told journalists in Saudi Arabia that Baghdad had asked for American action. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, confirmed in a Senate hearing, “We have a request from the Iraqi government for airpower.”
There was no sign that Washington would carry out the operations. To the contrary, the Obama Administration signalled that it was backing away from the option of attacks, although it put out the message that US aircraft were conducting round-the-clock surveillance. Influential members of Congress, including the Democratic leader in the Senate, warned against military intervention as Obama met top lawmakers.
The Administration’s PR pushed aside the military option in favor of a political track of “reform”, as Vice president Joe Biden phoned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other top politicians on Wednesday.
The White House said Biden “stressed the need for national unity in responding to the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham) threat against all Iraqi communities”, in calls with the Shia leader al-Maliki; Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni; and the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani.
Biden called “for co-ordination on security issues going forward, and for moving forward with urgency in forming a new government under the constitution”.
The White House put particular pressure on al-Maliki by saying Biden “emphasised the need for the Prime Minister –– and all Iraqi leaders –– to govern in an inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq’s population, and address the legitimate needs of Iraq’s diverse communities”.
President Obama indicated last week that US military intervention is contingent on al-Maliki, whose critics accuse him of centralizing power and alienating Sunni and Kurdish factions, pursuing “unity” and working with all groups in the country.
On the ground in Iraq, insurgents took over almost all of the Baiji oil refinery, 155 miles north of Baghdad, after a 7-hour fight on Wednesday morning. The insurgent victory — and the Government’s shaky position — was further highlighted by the collapse of denials from military spokesmen that opposition fighters had moved into the complex.
A witness said 250-300 workers were finally evacuate from the complex Wednesday, after reports that the Iraqi military — who have withdrawn to the northern gate of the refinery — had prevented departures.
Smoke amid the Wednesday attack on the refinery:
Insurgents parade through Baiji:
The refinery handles all of Iraq’s oil from the north, and the industry was further shaken by news of evacuations of foreign staff, including those of ExxonMobil and BP.
An official of the State oil company gave assurances that Iraqi oil would continue to flow from southern fields, with record exports in June. However, the words rang hollow in northern Iraq, where long lines formed for gasoline and prices rose 200-250%.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to push aside any notion of insurgent advance. In a defiant speech on State TV, he denounced the insurgency as a Saudi-backed plot and said his Government and the Iraqi nation were triumphing over the challenge.
Resident: Fighting Between Kurds and ISIS in Hawija Kills & Wounds Peshmerga
A resident has told The Guardian of fighting in insurgent-held Hawija, 40 km (25 miles) from Kirkuk.
The source says insurgents were trying to block a Kurdish attempt to move into al-Multaqa, about 20 km (12 miles) from Kirkuk, despite an initial agreement that insurgents hold the town is under the control of the rebels.
Three Kurdish peshmerga were killed and 15 wounded.
The father of three accuses peshmerga of harassing locals and cutting off oil.
Another resident says “life is much better now in Hawija under the administration of the rebels”, with the removal of a two-year curfew imposed by Iraqi forces, no sectarian detentions, and “no walls that made the town into a big prison”. He says the only problem is the siege by Kurdish peshmerga cutting off sales of fruit and vegetables to other towns.
Iraq Military: ISIS Using Taxi Drivers to Spread Propaganda
Iraq military spox Qassem Atta says ISIS is using taxi drivers to spread propaganda, warns Iraqis not to believe what taxi drivers say
— Liz Sly (@LizSly) June 19, 2014
Insurgents Occupy Saddam Hussein’s Chemical Weapons Facility
US State Department officials say insurgents have captured the al-Muthanna chemical weapons facility, built by Saddam Hussein, which has a stockpile of old weapons.
The officials said they do not believe the insurgents will be able to create a functional chemical weapon, as the stocks are old and contaminated.
“We remain concerned about the seizure of any military site by the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham),” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “We do not believe that the complex contains CW materials of military value and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely move the materials.”
Al-Muthanna held weapons with mustard gas, Sarin, Tabun, and VX.
Saudi Foreign Minister Hits Back at Iraq PM Al-Maliki’s Claims of “Foreign Plot”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal rejected the accusation by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that Riyadh is behind the “foreign plot” supporting the Iraqi insurgency.
“The Iraqi prime minister accuses the Kingdom of being a sponsor of terrorism, which is a ludicrous charge, when Saudi Arabia has criminalized terrorism, especially ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham,” Saud asserted:
(Our) advice to the Iraqi official to combat terrorism in his country is to follow the policy which the Kingdom is following and not to accuse it of being with terrorism…praise be to God we have cleaned our country of this epidemic.
The escalating battle of rhetoric with al-Maliki has overtaken earlier Saudi messages.
Speaking at a conference of foreign ministers on Wednesday, Saud called on countries facing uprisings to meet “legitimate demands of the people and to achieve national reconciliation (without) foreign interference or outside agendas”.
Saud continued, “This grave situation that is storming Iraq carries with it the signs of civil war whose implications for the region we cannot fathom.”
The Foreign Minister did not specify any particular foreign power, but Iran has put up to 2,000 troops into Iraq to help Baghdad check the advance of the insurgency.
Iranian Media Replaces News with Propaganda Denials of Insurgent Advances in Iraq
Iran’s State outlet Press TV is spreading outdated denials of insurgent advances in Iraq this morning and promising that Iraqi forces will regain the second city of Mosul, lost to the insurgency last week:
Iraq’s Army Spokesman General Qassim Atta stated on Wednesday that preparations were underway to move in against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham) militants in Mosul after Iraqi Special Forces regained full control over the nation’s largest petroleum refinery complex in Baiji, taking out at least 40 terrorists in the process….
According to the Iraqi general, one of ISIS leaders in Iraq was among those killed by government forces.
General Atta further reiterated that Iraqi armed forces were also in full control of the cities of Tal Afar and Samarra, which also came under attack by foreign-backed ISIS militants.
Eyewitness reports on Wednesday established that insurgents had taken almost all of the Baiji refinery, one of three in Iraq.
The insurgency also has captured Tal Afar, in northwest Iraq near the Syrian border, although Iraqi forces are carrying out air attacks and trying to regain territory.
There is one accurate item in Press TV’s report: Iraqi forces hold Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, repelling insurgent attacks and bringing in reinforcements and Shia volunteers.
Elsewhere, Press TV features a protest by “hundreds” of Iraqis in London over the coverage of the British Broadcasting Corporation, with placards such as “BBC, Get Your Facts Right”.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Calls on Iraqis to Refrain from Sectarian Conflict
The office of Iran’s Supreme Leader has used Twitter to put out his call for restraint:
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) June 19, 2014