Sunni militants in Iraq took control of several small oil fields and targeted one of the country’s largest air bases Wednesday, while a suicide bomb blast rocked an outdoor market just south of the capital of Baghdad.
The militants, led by the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria/Levant, also known as ISIS, overran the Ajeel oil site 19 miles outside of Tikrit, an engineer at the facility told Reuters.
The Ajeel oil fields produce 28,000 barrels a day and are connected to two pipelines, one of which runs to the oil refinery in Beiji, the largest in Iraq.
In fighting Wednesday, Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on the Beiji refinery they have been trying to take for days, but security forces fought them back, said Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.
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.
Elsewhere, four militants were killed in fighting inside the town of Yathrib, around 55 miles outside of Baghdad, witnesses and the deputy head of the municipality told Reuters.
Insurgents surrounded three sides of a huge air base nearby -- called “Camp Anaconda” when it was under U.S. occupation – and shelled it with mortars, witnesses added.
In the Mahmoudiya area 20 miles south of Baghdad, Iraqi police and hospital officials told The Associated Press that a suicide bomber has blown himself up at an outdoor market, killing 13 people and wounding 25.
The officials said the attack took place around sunset on Wednesday. The area has a Shiite majority.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack but it bore the hallmarks of Sunni militants who have for years targeted security forces and Shiite civilians.
Northeast of Baghdad, a mortar shell smashed into a house in Jalula, killing a woman and her two children. That town in the turbulent Diyala province is under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga.
Also Wednesday, a report by Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said an attack near Iran's western border with Iraq has killed three Iranian border guards. They were killed Tuesday night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province. A border outpost commander was among the three killed, Fars quoted a local security official, Shahriar Heidari, as saying.
Heidari said an unspecified "terrorist group" was behind the attack but provided no details.
Meanwhile, western diplomats reportedly have expressed concerns that the spreading Sunni Muslim insurgency in Iraq has triggered a crisis that may result in the dissolution of the nation-state.
Britain's Daily Telegraph cited a Western diplomat who warned that the threat presented by ISIS could be mortal to "Iraq's existence as a state, and it is also a threat to the wider region, too."
"We have used the word crisis about Iraq before, but this is the real thing," said the diplomat, who also expressed doubts about the capability of Iraq's leaders to resolve the sectarian disputes that have laid the groundwork for the ISIS insurgency.
"Iraq's political leaders now mostly realize the problems," the diplomat said. "But has it translated into action yet? It has not."
Anyone seeking reassurance was unlikely to find it from Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who told Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday, "We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq."
Iraqi officials told the Associated Press Tuesday that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was ready to concede the loss of large portions of territory in the north and west of Iraq -- at least temporarily -- and had deployed the military's best-trained and best-equipped soldiers to defend Baghdad.
"The danger facing Iraq requires all political groups to reconcile on the basis and principles of our constitutional democracy."
- Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
The militants have vowed to march to Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that prompted the nation's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shiite men.
The number of troops normally deployed in Baghdad has doubled, the officials said, but declined to give a figure. Significant numbers are defending the Green Zone, the sprawling area on the west bank of the Tigris River that is home to al-Maliki's office, as well as the U.S. Embassy.
"Al-Maliki is tense. He is up working until 4 a.m. every day. He angrily ordered staff at his office to stop watching TV news channels hostile to his government," one of the officials said.
In his weekly address to the nation, Nouri al-Maliki gave only a vague call for "all political forces to reconcile" with the principles of Iraq's constitutional democracy.
But several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace al-Maliki, have called on him to step down and form a so-called national salvation government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.
Maliki rejected forming a "national salvation" government, which he said would go against the results of parliamentary elections held on April 30. Al-Maliki's coalition, the State of the Law, won the most seats in that vote — 92 of the 328-seat chamber. In office since 2006, al-Maliki needs the support of a simple majority in the chamber to hold on to the job.
"We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts," said al-Maliki on Wednesday. "The danger facing Iraq requires all political groups to reconcile on the basis and principles of our constitutional democracy."
Meanwhile, dozens of newly arrived U.S. military advisers and special operations forces began assessing the Iraqi forces in an effort to strengthen Baghdad's ability to confront the insurgency.
President Barack Obama last week announced he would send as many as 300 advisers into Iraq to advise Iraqi security forces.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the American advisers already in Baghdad included two teams of special forces and about 90 advisers, intelligence analysts, commandos and support personnel needed to set up a joint operations center in the Iraqi capital. Another four teams of special forces would arrive in the next few days, Kirby said.
Iraqi officials have said the U.S. advisers were expected to focus on the better units the Americans had closely worked with before pulling out. Combined with approximately 360 other U.S. forces in and around the American Embassy in Baghdad to perform security, they would bring the total U.S military presence in Iraq to about 560.
Iraq's best-trained and equipped force is a 10,000-strong outfit once nicknamed the "dirty division" that fought alongside the Americans for years against Sunni extremists and Shiite militiamen. Now it is stretched thin, with many of its men deployed in Anbar province in a months-long standoff with Sunni militants who have since January controlled the city of Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad.
The Iraqi military, rife with corruption and torn by conflicting loyalties, lacks adequate air cover for its ground troops and armor, with the nation's infant air force operating two Cessna aircraft capable of firing U.S.-made Hellfire missiles. That leaves the army air wing of helicopter gunships stretched and overworked.
While Iraq's security forces number a whopping 1.1 million, with 700,000 in the police and the rest in the army, corruption, desertion and sectarian divisions have been a major problem. With a monthly salary of $700 for newly enlisted men, the forces have attracted many young Iraqis who would otherwise be unemployed. Once in, some bribe commanders so they can stay home and take a second job, lamented the officials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.