BAGHDAD -- Sunni militants hung their black banners on watch towers at Iraq's largest oil refinery, a witness said Thursday, suggesting the vital facility had fallen to the insurgents who have seized vast territories across the country's north. A top Iraqi security official, however, said the government still held the facility.
The fighting at Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While U.S. President Barack 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.
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 further militant advances, 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.
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.
Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani 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.
Gasoline produced at the refinery largely goes to northern Iraq and its closure has caused a shortage in the region.
The assault on the refinery also has affected global gasoline prices, as the U.S. national average price reached $3.67 per gallon, the highest price for this time of year since 2008, the year gasoline hit its all-time high in America. The price of benchmark crude for July delivery rose 57 cents Thursday to $106.54 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Amid the offensive, Iraq formally asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against positions of the Islamic State, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said.
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 campaign by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State militants has raised the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, with the popular mobilization to fight the insurgents taking an increasingly sectarian slant, particularly after Iraq's top Shiite cleric made a call to arms on Friday.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite 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 Shiite shrine.
Thursday, the bullet-riddled bodies of four handcuffed men, presumably Sunnis, were discovered in the Shiite 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 Shiite neighborhood 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.
The U.S. has pushed Iraq to present its people a clear coalition to fight the militants, with Vice President Joe Biden offering praise Wednesday for Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders as a means to tamper the sectarian anger roiling the country. It's unclear whether that will work, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has faced widespread dissatisfaction from the nation's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has rejected charges of bias and instead said the crisis has led Iraqis to rediscover "national unity."
Still, al-Maliki's outreach remain largely rhetoric, with no concrete action to bridge differences with Sunnis and Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the prime minister over their right to independently export oil from their self-rule region in the north and over territorial claims.
The United Arab Emirates, a key Western ally and important regional trading partner for Iraq, temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Iraq "for consultations." The Gulf federation's foreign ministry cited deep concern at the Iraqi government's "exclusionary and sectarian policies," according to a statement carried Wednesday night by the state news agency WAM.
The statement is likely to further stoke tensions between al-Maliki's Shite-led government and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states, particularly Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia. The Baghdad government has this week accused Riyadh of meddling in its internal affairs, responding to a Saudi Cabinet statement Monday that blamed "exclusion and marginalization" policies in Iraq for the ongoing crisis. Iraq also accuses Qatar of interfering in its affairs.