Sunni militants battled their way into Iraq's biggest oil refinery yesterday as the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.
The rebels were in control of three-quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery 250km north of Baghdad, an official there said, after heavy fighting at gates defended by troops who have been under siege for a week. The refinery's output is all for domestic use.
A lightning advance has seen Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rout the Shiite-led government's army and seize the main cities across the north of the country.
As the refinery battle continued, PetroChina, the single biggest investor in Iraq's oil sector, joined other international oil companies and began evacuating staff. China is Iraq's largest oil client, and its state energy firms, which also include Sinopec and CNOOC, together hold more than a fifth of the country's oil projects.
Some non-essential staff at those facilities had been evacuated, said Mao Zefeng, joint company secretary of PetroChina, China's largest energy firm, without saying how many or if they had been moved out of Iraq entirely. "We've got our contingency plan," said Mao. "But as our fields are all in the south, they are not affected yet."The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, criticised the evacuations, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shiite south and far from the fighting.
PetroChina and its parent China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) both have engineers and workers in Iraq, with CNPC's staff providing drilling and oilfield services. They outnumber the mostly administrative staff of PetroChina.
Hua said there were more than 10,000 people now working for Chinese companies in Iraq, based in areas outside the conflict zone that were "basically stable". "We will take necessary steps, depending on how the situation develops, to ensure the safety and legal rights of Chinese companies, organisations and workers in Iraq," she said, when asked whether there would have to be an evacuation.
The United States and other western countries are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents on Tuesday, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.
In a televised address yesterday, 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 Shiites for support. Shiite militia many believed to be funded and backed by Iran have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Iraq's army crumbles.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East's main Shiite power was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq's great shrines of Shiite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year. "Regarding the holy … 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," Rowhani said in an address to a crowd on live television.
Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, said Iraq was hurtling towards civil war.
Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse
Hillary Clinton wary of US making a deal with Iran on Iraq insurgents
Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed caution about the United States working with Iran to combat fast-moving Islamic insurgents in Iraq, saying the US needs to understand "what we're getting ourselves into".
The US and Iran have held an initial discussion about how the longtime foes might cooperate to address the threat from the al-Qaeda-linked militants that have swept through Iraq. Clinton said at a CNN town hall meeting on Tuesday that any partnerships with third parties such as Iran would need to be "carefully thought through".
"I am not prepared to say that we go in with Iran right now, until we have a better idea what we're getting ourselves into," said the former secretary of state.
Clinton spoke during an hour-long forum to promote her new book, Hard Choices, about her four years as President Barack Obama's top diplomat.
As conditions in Iraq deteriorate, US and Iranian officials have both raised concerns about the swift advance of radical Islamist forces in Iraq and officials from the two countries met briefly in Washington on Monday.
The White House, however, has ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might coordinate military operations in Iraq.
Clinton said Iran could prop up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government the same way Iran helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's hold onto power when rebels challenged his government.