Sunni militants launched a dawn raid today on a key Iraqi oil refinery they have been trying to take for days but were repelled by security forces, a commander on the scene said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government is struggling to repel advances led by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a well-trained and mobile force thought to have some 10,000 fighters inside Iraq.
The response by government forces has so far been far short of a counteroffensive, restricted mostly to areas where Shiites are in danger of falling prey to the Sunni extremists or around a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
Iraqi officials have told The Associated Press that al-Maliki is ready to at least temporarily concede the loss of large swaths of territory to Sunni insurgents as he deploys the military's best troops to defend Baghdad.
Shiite militias responding to a call to arms by Iraq's top cleric are also focused on protecting the capital and Shiite shrines, while Kurdish fighters have grabbed a long-coveted oil-rich city outside their self-ruled territory, ostensibly to defend it from the al-Qaeda breakaway group.
Government forces backed by helicopter gunships have fought for a week to defend Iraq's largest oil refinery in Beiji, north of Baghdad.
The refinery is located in the heart of the Sunni- dominated areas in northern Iraq, where the militants have swallowed large swaths of land since June 10.
Along with a nearby power plant, the refinery supplies Iraq with a third of its refined fuel and nearly a tenth of its electricity, according to Barclays analysts.
Militants attacked the site again early today but were beaten back by government forces, said Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of Iraqi counterterror forces at the scene. He said his men exchanged fire with insurgents when they tried to attack a nearby oil pipeline, wounding one solider.
Across the border, Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency reported that three Iranian troops were killed in an attack last night by an unspecified "terrorist group" near the border with Iraq.
While it is not clear which group was behind the attack in Iran's western Kermanshah province, the incident highlighted the risk of spillover from the Sunni militants' assault into Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Iran, which has strong ties with Iraq's Shiite-led government, has boosted border security amid advances by the militants.