Iran vows to defend Iraq Shi'ite sites; insurgents battle for refinery

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Iran vows to defend Iraq Shi'ite sites; insurgents battle for refinery
FILE - Undated file picture released on Wednesday Jan. 29, 2014, by the official website of Iraq's Interior Ministry claims to show Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the so called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. An al-Qaida splinter group that has seized a huge chunk of northern Iraq commands as many as 10,000 fighters and has steadily been consolidating its hold on much of northeastern Syria across the border. The group is led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known by his nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. After taking the reins in 2010, al-Baghdadi successfully transformed what had been an umbrella organization focused mainly on Iraq into a transnational military force. (AP Photo/Iraqi Interior Ministry, File)
FILE - This undated photo posted by the U.S. State Department in their Rewards for Justice website on June 18, 2014 shows Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The leader of the extremist group that has swept over much of northern Syria and Iraq called on Muslims Tuesday, July 1, 2014 to immigrate to the territory his group has seized to help build an Islamic state. The 19-minute audiotape from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi comes two days after his organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land it controls. It also proclaimed al-Baghdadi the caliph, and demanded that all Muslims around the world pledge allegiance to him.(AP Photo/U.S. State Department Rewards for Justice, File)
A black flag used by the al-Qaida inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves over the celebrations square in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. The militant extremist group's unilateral declaration of an Islamic state is threatening to undermine its already-tenuous alliance with other Sunnis who helped it overrun much of northern and western Iraq. (AP Photo)
A black flag used by the al-Qaida inspired lslamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves from a damaged police station in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Tuesday, July 1, 2014. The militant extremist group's unilateral declaration of an Islamic state is threatening to undermine its already-tenuous alliance with other Sunnis who helped it overrun much of northern and western Iraq.(AP Photo)
This undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group, on Monday, June 30, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a parade in Raqqa, Syria. Militants from an al-Qaida splinter group held a military parade in their stronghold in northeastern Syria, displaying U.S.-made Humvees, heavy machine guns, and missiles captured from the Iraqi army for the first time since taking over large parts of the Iraq-Syria border. (AP Photo/Raqqa Media Center)
This undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group, on Monday, June 30, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a parade with a missile in Raqqa, Syria. Militants from an al-Qaida splinter group held a military parade in their stronghold in northeastern Syria, displaying U.S.-made Humvees, heavy machine guns, and missiles captured from the Iraqi army for the first time since taking over large parts of the Iraq-Syria border. (AP Photo/Raqqa Media Center)
This undated image posted by the Raqqa Media Center, a Syrian opposition group, on Monday, June 30, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a parade in Raqqa, Syria. Militants from an al-Qaida splinter group held a military parade in their stronghold in northeastern Syria, displaying U.S.-made Humvees, heavy machine guns, and missiles captured from the Iraqi army for the first time since taking over large parts of the Iraq-Syria border. (AP Photo/Raqqa Media Center)
Iraqi Shiite women hold weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 18, 2014 in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. Iraq's premier vowed today to 'face terrorism' and insisted security forces had suffered a 'setback' rather than defeat, as militants pressing a major offensive attacked the country's largest oil refinery. AFP PHOTO/HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
File - In this Monday, Oct. 6, 2003 file photo, an oil refinery is seen in the city of Beiji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery. On Wednesday, June 18, 2014, a top Iraqi security official said Islamic militants of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant laid siege to Iraq's largest oil refinery late Tuesday night, threatening a facility key to the country's domestic supplies as part of their ongoing lightning offensive across the country. The Beiji refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity and any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
File - In this Monday, Oct. 6, 2003 file photo, an abandoned watchtower and lines of barbed wire are seen surrounding Iraq's largest oil refinery as smoke rises from a petroleum gas flare, in the city of Beiji, north of Baghdad. On Wednesday, June 18, 2014, a top Iraqi security official said Islamic militants of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant laid siege to Iraq's largest oil refinery late Tuesday night, threatening a facility key to the country's domestic supplies as part of their ongoing lightning offensive across the country. The Beiji refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity and any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2009 file photo, Iraqi laborers work at the Rumaila oil refinery, near the city of Basra. Iraq’s oil ministry is raising its estimate for the country’s proven oil reserves to 150 billion barrels, up nearly 5 percent from a 2010 estimate of 143 billion barrels. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 file photo, Syrian rebel fighter Tawfiq Hassan, 23, a former butcher, poses for a picture, after returning from fighting against Syrian army forces in Aleppo, at a rebel headquarters in Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
FILE - In this Friday, June 13, 2014 file photo, Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters deploy with their weapons while chanting slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, to help the military, which defends the capital in Baghdad's Sadr City, Iraq. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim, File)
Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents, in Baghdad's Sadr City, Iraq, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Thousands of Shiites from Baghdad and across southern Iraq answered an urgent call to arms Saturday, joining security forces to fight the Islamic militants who have captured large swaths of territory north of the capital and now imperil Samarra, a city with a much-revered religious shrine. The poster depicts Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
In this Tuesday, June 17, 2014 image taken from video obtained from British Broadcaster Sky, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Kurdish soliders aim their weapons towards positions held by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant near Jalula, Iraq. Kurdish security forces are engaged in gun battles with Sunni militants in the northern Iraqi town of Jalula, according to British Broadcaster Sky. Footage showed Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga using heavy artillery and rockets to attack militant positions on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sky via AP video)
In this Tuesday, June 17, 2014 image taken from video obtained from British Broadcaster Sky, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Pehsmerga forces hold their weapons as they run on a street, near Jalula, Iraq. Kurdish security forces are engaged in gun battles with Sunni militants in the northern Iraqi town of Jalula, according to British Broadcaster Sky. Footage showed Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga using heavy artillery and rockets to attack militant positions on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sky via AP video)
In this Tuesday, June 17, 2014 image taken from video obtained from British Broadcaster Sky, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Kurdish peshmerga fighter fires a heavy machine gun atop of an armored vehicle, near Jalula, Iraq. Kurdish security forces are engaged in gun battles with Sunni militants in the northern Iraqi town of Jalula, according to British Broadcaster Sky. Footage showed Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga using heavy artillery and rockets to attack militant positions on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sky via AP video)
In this Tuesday, June 17, 2014 image taken from video obtained from British Broadcaster Sky, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Kurdish peshmerga fighter fires a heavy machine gun atop of an armored vehicle, near Jalula, Iraq. Kurdish security forces are engaged in gun battles with Sunni militants in the northern Iraqi town of Jalula, according to British Broadcaster Sky. Footage showed Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga using heavy artillery and rockets to attack militant positions on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Sky via AP video)
Iraqi displaced people, who have fled violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province, walk past the wreckage of military vehicles upon their arrival in al-Hamdaniyah, 76 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil, on June 18, 2014. Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi army's newly recruited men gather June 18 2014 in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf following top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for Iraqis to take up arms against 'terrorists' who have overrun swathes of the country in a major offensive. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to 'face terrorism' while insisting Iraqi security forces that wilted under a major militant offensive had suffered a 'setback' but not a defeat. AFP PHOTO/HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi special forces keep watch as they secure a district in West Baghdad on June 18, 2014. Saudi Arabia warned today of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces. AFP PHOTO/SABAH ARAR (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
PERSIAN GULF - APRIL 4 : A U.S. Marine Harrier jet lands on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard April 4, 2003 in the Persian Gulf. Harrier jets from the Bon Homme Richard continue to carry out bombing missions in support of the U.S.-led in Iraq. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
AT SEA - MARCH 25: A Tomahawk cruise missile flies toward Iraq after being launched from the AEGIS guided missile cruiser USS San Jacinto March 25, 2003 in the Red Sea. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Kurdish security forces deploy outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014. The al-Qaida-inspired group that captured two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government's ability to slow the assault following the insurgents' lightning gains. Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said, but he denied they they had taken over the northern flashpoint city. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)
Kurdish security forces deploy outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014. The al-Qaida-inspired group that captured two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government's ability to slow the assault following the insurgents' lightning gains. Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said, but he denied they they had taken over the northern flashpoint city. (AP Photo/ Emad Matti)
Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Thursday, June 12, 2014. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group, on Monday and Tuesday took over much of Mosul in Iraq and then swept into the city of Tikrit further south. An estimated half a million residents fled Mosul, the economically important city. (AP Photo)
Iraqi men chant slogans against the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), outside of the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June. 12, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. The al-Qaida-inspired group that led the charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government's ability to slow the assault following the insurgents' lightning gains. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Peshmargas of Iraq Kurdistan Regional Government patrol on the region to prevent infiltration of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants who seized Mosul, in Iraq on 12 June, 2014. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, only 1 kilometre away from areas controlled by Sunni Muslim Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the main road between Kirkuk, Mosul and Baiji in northern Iraq on June 12, 2014. With ISIL's Islamist fighters closing in on the Iraqi capital Baghdad, forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region took control of disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it from Islamist attack, officials said. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM (Photo credit should read MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama answers questions on violence in Iraq during his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Thursday, June 12, 2014, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Obama said that Iraq will need additional assistance from the U.S. to push back an Islamic insurgency. The president did not specify in a brief question-and-answer session what type of assistance he is willing to provide. But Obama did say the White House has not ruled anything out. He said he is watching the situation in Iraq with concern and wants to ensure that jihadists don't get a foothold. Iraq has been beset by violence since the last American forces withdrew in late 2011. The violence escalated this week with an al-Qaida-inspired group capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities this week and vowing to march on to Baghdad. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama answers questions on violence in Iraq during his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Thursday, June 12, 2014, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Obama said that Iraq will need additional assistance from the U.S. to push back an Islamic insurgency. The president did not specify in a brief question-and-answer session what type of assistance he is willing to provide. But Obama did say the White House has not ruled anything out. He said he is watching the situation in Iraq with concern and wants to ensure that jihadists don't get a foothold. Iraq has been beset by violence since the last American forces withdrew in late 2011. The violence escalated this week with an al-Qaida-inspired group capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities this week and vowing to march on to Baghdad. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi military personnel in civilian clothes ride in the back of a truck as they flee from the northern city of Kirkuk, on June 11, 2014. Jihadists militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executed 15 Iraqi security personnel in areas of Kirkuk province that the militants seized a day before, a senior police officer and local officials said. The Jihadists overran Iraq's second city of Mosul, the surrounding Nineveh province and parts of Kirkuk, in a major blow on June 10, that Washington warned threatens the entire region. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM (Photo credit should read MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with an Air Force soldier during a ceremony to mark the return of the United States Forces-Iraq and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011 ending the was after nearly nine years. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
ROCK HILL, SC - DECEMBER 14: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as first lady Michelle Obama listens during a tribute to the troops on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The U.S. is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by December 31. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
ROCK HILL, SC - DECEMBER 14: First lady Michelle Obama (R) speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a tribute to the troops on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The U.S. is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by December 31. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraq war veterans on August 31, 2010 at Fort Bliss, Texas. Obama is to address Americans from the Oval Office in a televised speech at 8:00 pm (midnight GMT), after travelling to the military base in Texas to meet with soldiers recently returned from Iraq. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraq war veterans on August 31, 2010 at Fort Bliss, Texas. Obama is to address Americans from the Oval Office in a televised speech at 8:00 pm (midnight GMT), after travelling to the military base in Texas to meet with soldiers recently returned from Iraq. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (7th L) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (5th L) greet troops during a ceremony to mark the return of the United States Forces-Iraq Colors and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011 ending the was after nearly nine years. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
First Lady Michelle Obama (C) is hugged by US President Barack Obama as they deliver remarks to troops and military families at Fort Bragg, NC, December 14, 2011. Obama on Wednesday marked the US exit from Iraq by eulogizing fallen troops and seek to move Americans on from a divisive near nine-year war which he opposed. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with General Lloyd James Austin, the last commanding general of US forces in Iraq, while greting returning troops with US Vice President Joe Biden (R) before attending a ceremony to mark the return of the US Forces - Iraq colors December 20, 2011 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The event marks the end of the Iraq war after the last US combat troops rolled out of Iraq into Kuwait on December 18. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize the control of Kirkuk where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had clashes, and Iraqi forces abandoned the city after these clashes, in Iraq, on June 13, 2014. Peshmerga forces, took the control of North Refineries and provided the security of the area, fight against the ISIL members in some part of the city. (Photo by Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize the control of Kirkuk where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had clashes, and Iraqi forces abandoned the city after these clashes, in Iraq, on June 13, 2014. Peshmerga forces, took the control of North Refineries and provided the security of the area, fight against the ISIL members in some part of the city. (Photo by Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi army troops chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they recruit volunteers to join the fight against a major offensive by the jihadist group in northern Iraq, outside a recruiting centre in the capital Baghdad on June 13, 2014. Iraqi forces clashed with militants advancing on the city of Baquba, just 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Baghdad, as an offensive spearheaded by jihadists drew closer to the capital. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces stand guard at checkpoints around the camp. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa (L), the Kurdish Regional Government's Minister responsible for the Peshmerga, visits Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deployedoutside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: It announced that many abandoned military vehicles are seen at the road as militants of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seize the 12th division command and the commander and soldiers leave the military quarters, in Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 12, 2014. (Photo by Aram Kerkuki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Assyrian Christian nuns flee Mosul to the safe zones near Arbil city, due to the clashes between Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) members and Iraqi security forces, in Mosul, Iraq on June 13, 2014. People are placed to the camps built by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government near Arbil. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children are given bags of bread at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in the country's northern Nineveh province on June 12, 2014, in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands of people who fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by jihadists wait in the blistering heat, hoping to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region and furious at Baghdad's failure to help them. As many as half a million people are thought to have fled Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10, after a spectacular assault that routed the army. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi children are given food at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province on June 12, 2014, in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands of people who fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by jihadists wait in the blistering heat, hoping to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region and furious at Baghdad's failure to help them. As many as half a million people are thought to have fled Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10, after a spectacular assault that routed the army. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. A tearful woman is seen at the camp. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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By Ghazwan Hassan

(Reuters) - Sunni rebels battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq on Wednesday, and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a week.

A lightning advance has seen Sunni fighters rout the Shi'ite-led government's army and seize the main cities across the north of the country since last week.

The fighters are led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.

Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) had conducted a major evacuation and BP (BP.L) had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticised the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shi'ite south and far from the fighting.

ISIL Take Hold of Iraq's Largest Refinery

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.

In a televised address on Wednesday Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce "those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas".

But so far Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi'ite militia - many believed to be funded and backed by Iran - have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.

Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift dating to the 7th Century.

HOLY SHRINES

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East's main Shi'ite power, which fought a war against Iraq that killed a million people in the 1980s, was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq's great shrines of Shi'ite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

"Regarding the holy Shi'a shrines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya 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: "Thanks be to God, I will tell the dear people of Iran that veterans and various forces - Sunnis Shias and Kurds all over Iraq - are ready for sacrifice."

Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the main Shi'ite shrines. The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam since the Middle Ages.

Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, said Iraq was hurtling towards civil war. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in words clearly aimed at Iran and at Baghdad's Shi'ite rulers, deplored the prospect of "foreign intervention" and said governments need to meet "legitimate demands of the people".

Maliki's government has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting "genocide" by backing Sunni militants. Riyadh supports Sunni fighters in Syria but denies aiding ISIL.

The Baiji refinery is the fighters' immediate goal, the biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq, which would give them a firm grip on energy supply in the north where the local population has complained of fuel shortages.

The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown out by helicopter.

"The militants have managed to break in to the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery," an official speaking from inside the refinery said.

The government denied the refinery had fallen. Counter-terrorism spokesman, Sabah Nouri, insisted forces were still in control and had killed 50 to 60 fighters and burned 6 or 7 insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three directions.

FROSTY MEETING

Last week's sudden advance by ISIL - a group that declares all Shi'ites to be heretics deserving death and has proudly distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners lying prone in mass graves - is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.

Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops but is considering other military options to help defend Baghdad, and U.S. officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual foe.

But U.S. and other international officials insist Maliki must do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among Sunnis, the minority that ran Iraq until U.S. troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.

Western countries fear an ISIL-controlled mini-state in Syria and Iraq could become a haven for militants who could then stage attacks around the globe.

British prime minister David Cameron told parliament he disagreed "with those people who think this is nothing to do with us and if they want to have some sort of extreme Islamist regime in the middle of Iraq it won't affect us. It will.

"The people in that regime, as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us at home in the United Kingdom," Cameron said.

In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood frostily before cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite politician who held the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.

"No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion," Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of "reviewing the previous course" of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.

Though the joint statement said only those directly employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi'ite militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.

According to one Shi'ite Islamist working in the government, well-trained organisations Asaib Ahl Haq, Khataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organisation are now being deployed alongside Iraqi military units as the main combat force.

With battles now raging just an hour's drive north of the capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw fierce sectarian street fighting from 2006-1007 and is still divided into Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by razor wire and concrete blast walls.

India said it was worried about 40 Indian construction workers missing in territory seized by ISIL.

(Reporting By Ghazwan Hassan, Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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