Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to step down
Ultimatum: U.S. officials said Nouri al-Maliki must resign if America is to intervene in the conflict militarily (File/AFP)
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Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused calls for his resignation as government forces continue to battle Sunni militants attempting to take control of the biggest oil refinery in the crisis-hit country.
Mr Maliki's spokesman, Zuhair al-Nahar, said the west should support the Shia-led government's military operation against al-Qa'ida splinter group Isis instead of calling for a change in government, after it emerged that the U.S. had told senior Iraqi officials Mr Maliki must leave office if it is to intervene militarily.
He told BBC Radio 4 Today: "Our focus needs to be on urgent action – air support, logistic support, counter-intelligence support to defeat these terrorists who are posing a real danger to the stability of Iraq, to the whole region."
He said Mr Maliki would not resign as a condition of U.S. air strikes requested by the Iraqi government.
On Wednesday, Republican Senator John McCain called for the use of American air power, but also urged US President Obama to "make it make very clear to Maliki that his time is up," a call that was echoed by Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee.
The Baiji refinery, 200 km north of the Baghdad, was a battlefield on Thursday as troops loyal to the Shia-led government held off insurgents from Isis who stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.
Witnesses reported seeing plumes of smoke and said insurgents flew black banners across watch towers on the refinery, suggesting the facility had fallen into their control. This claim was denied by a top Iraqi security official, however, who said the government still held control.
Isis militants have overtaken towns across northern Iraq in a lightning-speed advance towards the capital of Baghdad.
The U.S. has pushed Iraq to present a clear coalition to fight the militants, with Vice President Joe Biden offering praise Wednesday for Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders as a means to tamper the sectarian anger roiling the country.
Mr Maliki's Shia-led government has faced widespread dissatisfaction from the nation's sizable Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Mr Maliki, a Shia, has rejected charges of bias and instead said the crisis has led Iraqis to rediscover "national unity."
In Washington, Mr Obama briefed leaders of Congress on options for quelling the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency, though White House officials said the president had made no decisions about how to respond to the crumbling security situation.
By Heather Saul