Iraq asks United States for air support to counter rebels


Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi'ite-led government's army.

However, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a Congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.

Baghdad said it wanted U.S. air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he said: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them.”

In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIL.

While Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible”, he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

The White House has said President Barack Obama has not yet decided what action, if any, to take following the rebel onslaught, and was due to discuss the options with leaders of Congress later on Wednesday.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.

However, any air targets would be hard to identify because the militants did not have traditional supply lines or major physical infrastructure and mingled with civilians.

REFINERY BATTLE

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.

ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but the rebels 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 had conducted a major evacuation and BP 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.

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki 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.

Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the insurgents seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.

HOLY SHRINES

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.

Iranian 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 grip on energy supply in the north where the 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 into 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 facility 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 six or seven insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three directions.

Oil prices rose on news the refinery was partly in rebel hands.

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 Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.

Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops and U.S. officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy. However, the White House said more talks with Iran about dealing with the crisis in Iraq, which have taken place on the sidelines of meetings on Tehran's nuclear programme, are unlikely for the time being.

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.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back sending U.S. troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he described as a “civil war”.

Reid and three other congressional leaders – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi – are meeting Obama later on Wednesday.

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.

In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood 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.

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 2006-2007 and is still divided into Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by razor wire and concrete blast walls.

Addtional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan, Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker, Oliver Holmes, Mark Hosenball, Amena Bakr and Yara Bayoumi; Writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; Editing by Will Waterman and Robin Pomeroy

Nuclear plant in Iran nearing full operation, country’s energy minister says


Iran's energy minister said his country's first nuclear power plant will be fully operational in the next two months.

Najid Namjou was quoted Thursday by the Islamic Republic's semi-official Fars news agency about the Bushehr plant, according to Reuters.

The same day, the Pentagon confirmed that Iran fired on a U.S. drone flying in international airspace 15 miles off the coast of Iran and east of Kuwait on Nov. 1. The drone was not hit.

Russia said two months ago that the Bushehr plant was completely online. Work on the plant reportedly was completed by Russia more than 30 years after construction was started by German companies in 1975. The plant started adding electricity to Iran's national grid in September 2011. It is believed that the refined uranium produced by the plant also could be used to power a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon told CNN that the drone was on a routine maritime surveillance and that the incident involves sensitive intelligence matters.

It is unclear whether Iran intended to hit the drone. It is believed to be the first time that Iran has fired on a U.S. drone.

Iranian warplanes fired on U.S. drone over Gulf, Pentagon says


Iranian warplanes fired at an unarmed U.S. drone in international airspace last week but did not hit the aircraft, the Pentagon said on Thursday, disclosing details of an unprecedented incident that triggered a formal warning to Tehran through diplomatic channels.

The November 1 intercept was the first time Tehran had fired at an unmanned American aircraft, in a stark reminder of how tensions between the United States and Iran could escalate quickly into violence.

If Iran had hit the drone, as the Pentagon believes it was trying to do, it could have forced American retaliation – with the potential consequences that entails.

According to the timeline provided by the Pentagon, two Iranian SU-25 “Frogfoot” aircraft intercepted the American drone at about 4:50 a.m. EST as it conducted a routine, but classified, surveillance mission over Gulf waters about 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the aircraft fired multiple rounds at the Predator drone and followed it for at least several miles as it moved farther away from Iranian airspace.

“We believe that they fired at least twice and made at least two passes,” he said.

International airspace begins after 12 nautical miles and Little said the drone at no point entered Iranian airspace. Last year, a crashed CIA drone was recovered inside Iran.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quickly notified of the incident, as were members of Congress and the White House, Little added. The United States also sent Iran a warning through diplomatic channels, saying it would defend its military assets and would keep sending aircraft on such surveillance operations.

“There is absolutely no precedence for this,” Little said. “This is the first time that a (drone) has been fired upon to our knowledge by Iranian aircraft.”

Many questions about the incident remain, including why Iranian warplanes could not manage – if they wanted – to shoot down an unarmed drone, which lacks advanced capabilities to outmaneuver them.

Asked whether the Iranian aircraft were simply firing warning shots, Little said: “Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down. You'll have to ask the Iranians why they engaged in this action.”

There was no immediate comment by Iranian officials.

SANCTIONS TIGHTENED

President Barack Obama has resisted calls from inside the United States and Israel for military action against Iran, focusing instead on crushing rounds of sanctions, which were tightened again on Thursday.

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran's communications minister and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for jamming international satellite broadcasts to Iran and censoring and closing newspapers and detaining journalists.

The sanctions are part of broader efforts to isolate Tehran, which denies U.S. accusations that it seeks to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program.

In an effort to drive Iran to compromise, the United States and the European Union have gone for the jugular – Iran's oil exports – over the past year.

The United States and Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence, have also hinted at the possibility of military strikes on Iran as a last resort.

Obama has said the United States will “do what we must” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and has repeatedly said that all options are on the table – code for the possibility of using force.

Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Peter Cooney

U.S. official says no sign Iran shot down drone


Iranian media reported on Sunday that their country’s military had shot down a U.S. reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran, but a U.S. official said there was no indication the aircraft had been shot down.

NATO’s U.S.-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan said the Iranian report could refer to an unarmed U.S. spy drone that went missing there last week.

The incident comes at a time when Tehran is trying to contain foreign outrage at the storming of the British embassy on Tuesday, after London announced sanctions on Iran’s central bank in connection with Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

Iran has announced several times in the past that it shot down U.S., Israeli or British drones, in incidents that did not provoke high-profile responses.

“Iran’s military has downed an intruding RQ-170 American drone in eastern Iran,” Iran’s Arabic-language Al Alam state television network quoted a military source as saying.

“The spy drone, which has been downed with little damage, was seized by the Iranian armed forces,” the source said. “The Iranian military’s response to the American spy drone’s violation of our airspace will not be limited to Iran’s borders.”

Iranian officials were not available to comment further.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said in a statement: “The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week.

“The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said: “There is absolutely no indication up to this point that Iranians shot down this drone.”

Tuesday’s storming of the British embassy attracted swift condemnation from around the world, further isolating Iran.

Britain evacuated its diplomatic staff from Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from London in retaliation. Several other EU members like Germany, France and Spain also recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over a program they suspect is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Iran says it would respond to any strike by attacking Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf.

In January Iran said it shot down two unmanned Western reconnaissance drones in the Gulf. In July Iran said it had shot down an unmanned U.S. spy plane over the holy city of Qom, near its Fordu nuclear site.

Western nations on Thursday significantly tightened sanctions against Iran, with the European Union expanding an Iranian blacklist and the U.S. Senate passing a measure that could severely disrupt Iran’s oil income.

Iran warned the West on Sunday any move to block its oil exports would more than double crude prices with devastating consequences on a fragile global economy.

“As soon as such an issue is raised seriously the oil price would soar to above $250 a barrel,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the Sharq newspaper.

So far neither Washington nor Brussels has finalized a move against Iran’s oil trade or its central bank. Crude prices were pushed up over the British embassy storming with ICE Brent January crude up 95 cents on Friday to settle at $109.94 a barrel.

Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Caren Bohan and David Alexander in Washington and Missy Ryan in Bonn; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff

Iran unveils long-range drone bomber


Iran’s president unveiled the country’s first domestically built unmanned long-range bomber.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday revealed the drone prototype, called Karar, on a state television broadcast, according to reports.

“The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship,” Ahmadinejad reportedly said during the unveiling.

“The main message of Karar bomber is to prevent any kind of aggression and conflict” against the Islamic Republic, he said. 

The high-speed drone can carry two 250-pound bombs or a 500-pound precision missile, according to Iranian state television.

The unveiling comes a day after Iran began loading uranium into its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor, ahead of the activation of the power plant.

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