BAGHDAD – Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships appeared to be holding on after three days of battle against Sunni militants Thursday for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own fate seemed increasingly in play with political leaders meeting in recent days behind closed doors and discussing his future, according to a Shiite lawmaker.
The loss of the Beiji oil refinery, some 155 miles north of Baghdad, would be a devastating symbol of the Baghdad government’s powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West.
By late Thursday, the two sides held different parts of the refinery, which extends over several square miles of desert.
The tenacious fight for the refinery reflected the government’s desperation to hold on to a shrinking share of the country and stop the momentum of the Sunni extremists, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant allied with Sunni tribes and elements of Saddam Hussein’s old Baath Party.
It also represented al-Maliki’s need for a military victory as leaders in both Baghdad and Washington questioned whether he should remain in office.
A witness who drove past the Beiji oil facility said the militants manned checkpoints around it and hung their black banners on watchtowers.
One of the militants laying siege to the refinery confirmed by telephone that the facility remained in government hands, saying helicopter gunships slowed the insurgents’ advance.
The militant identified himself only by his alias, Abu Anas, and there was no way to verify his identity or location.
The refinery’s workers were evacuated to nearby villages.