BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces held off Sunni militants trying to take control of the nation’s largest oil refinery on Wednesday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on a diplomatic offensive, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation’s disaffected Sunnis and Kurds.
Meanwhile, the government asserted that it had retaken partial control of a strategic city near the border with Syria.
Al-Maliki’s conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the militants a “lesson,” came as almost all Iraq’s main communities have been drawn into a spasm of violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings nearly a decade ago.
The U.S. has been pressing al-Maliki to adopt political inclusion and undermine the insurgency by making overtures to Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, which has long complained of discrimination by his government and abuses by his Shiite-led security forces.
In Washington, President Barack Obama briefed leaders of Congress on options for quelling the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency, though White House officials said the president had made no decisions about how to respond to the crumbling security situation in Iraq. While Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent, officials said, in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has rejected charges of bias against Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and has in recent days been stressing that the threat posed by the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.
In a move apparently designed to satisfy Obama’s demand for national reconciliation, al-Maliki expressed optimism in a televised address Wednesday over what he called the rise by all of Iraq’s political groups to the challenge of defending the nation against the militant threat.
The crisis has led Iraqis to rediscover “national unity,” he said.
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 and over territorial claims.
Al-Maliki’s upbeat assessment came as the military said government forces had repelled militant attacks on the country’s largest oil refinery and retaken parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border.