US troops have been deployed to Iraq to assist the Iraqi army in combating a growing Sunni militant insurgency, the Pentagon has announced.
Nearly half the 300 special operations soldiers promised by President Barack Obama are in Baghdad or on the front lines of the fight.
The rest are expected within days.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry called for regional unity to expel the Sunni ISIS rebels who have taken large swathes of Iraq.
On Tuesday, two teams totaling 40 US troops began work assessing Iraqi troops on the front line, the Pentagon said.
US troops have been deployed to Iraq to assist the Iraqi army in combating a growing Sunni militant insurgency (photo NBC News)
An additional 90 personnel will work in Baghdad to set up a new joint operations command centre.
Those teams will be joined by an additional four teams of 50 troops each in the next few days.
The Obama administration has stressed the troops are not intended as operational forces but instead are there to advise the Iraqis and provide intelligence.
The Iraqi government had requested American air strikes, but Barack Obama has been reluctant to do anything that could lead to accusations the US was taking sides in a sectarian conflict.
The insurgents, spearheaded by Islamists fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), have overrun much of north and west Iraq, including the second-biggest city, Mosul.
The violence has claimed at least 1,075 lives in Iraq in June alone, most of them civilians, a UN human rights team has reported.
The UN said the figures, which include a number of verified summary executions, should be viewed as an absolute minimum.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil to hold talks with Kurdish leaders as Sunni rebels continue their offensive.
John Kerry’s trip comes a day after he visited Baghdad and pledged US support for Iraqi security forces.
He said Iraq faced a moment of great urgency as its very existence was under threat.
The Sunni rebels say they have fully captured the country’s main oil refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad.
Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil to hold talks with Kurdish leaders
John Kerry’s meetings with Kurdish leaders come as Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani strongly suggested that his region would seek formal independence from the rest of Iraq.
Speaking on Monday, John Kerry said Iraq’s PM Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders had committed themselves to the “essential ” step of forming an inclusive unity government by the end of the month.
Insurgents, spearheaded by Islamists fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), have overrun a swathe of territory in the north and west including the second-biggest city, Mosul.
They are bearing down on a vital dam near Haditha and have captured all border crossings to Syria and Jordan.
The Baiji refinery, in Salahuddin province, had been under siege for 10 days, with militant attacks repulsed several times. The complex supplies a third of Iraq’s refined fuel and the battle has already led to petrol rationing.
A rebel spokesman said it would now be handed over to local tribes to administer, and that the advance towards Baghdad would continue.
Speaking at the US embassy in Baghdad, John Kerry said US support would “allow Iraqi security forces to confront [ISIS] more effectively and in a way that respects Iraq’s sovereignty”.
“The support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together it will be effective,” he said.
Iraq’s government has lost control of its western borders after Sunni militants reportedly captured crossings to Syria and Jordan.
Officials said the rebels took two key crossings in Anbar on Sunday, a day after seizing one at Qaim, a town in the province that borders Syria.
The strategically important airport in the northern town of Tal Afar has also reportedly fallen to the rebels.
ISIS-led militants have cut a swathe through parts of Iraq.
Iraq’s government has lost control of its western borders after Sunni militants captured crossings to Syria and Jordan (photo AP)
Since the fall of Mosul in early June, ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – have helped win large areas in the west and north.
They have taken four strategically important towns in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province – Qaim, Rutba, Rawa and Anah – in the last two days.
Gunmen reportedly captured the border posts of al-Waleed, on the Syrian frontier, and Turaibil, on the Jordanian border, on Sunday after government forces pulled out.
The capture of frontier crossings could help Isis transport weapons and other equipment to different battlefields, analysts say.
The funeral of a senior army officer who was killed in the fighting for Qaim on Friday was targeted by a suicide and car bomb attack in Ramadi. At least six people were killed as they gathered to mourn Brig. Gen. Majid al-Fahdawi.
Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Cairo, singled out ISIS whose “ideology of violence and repression”, he said, “is a threat not only to Iraq but to the entire region”.
Calling it a “critical moment”, John Kerry urged Iraq’s leaders “to rise above sectarian motivations and form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people”.
Iraq forces are battling Sunni militants for control of the country’s biggest oil refinery.
A military spokesman said troops had repelled repeated attacks by the militants, led by the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Forty assailants were killed overnight and on Wednesday, he added, denying the facility was close to being overrun.
But some workers said the militants had seized most of it and that troops were concentrated around the control room.
It comes as President Barak Obama considers a formal request from Iraq’s government for air strikes against the militants, who have seized several northern cities and towns since last week.
ISIS-led militants launched an assault on the Baiji refinery, about 130 miles north of the capital Baghdad, early on Wednesday.
Workers trapped inside said the attackers had breached the perimeter and destroyed one of its fuel tanks. Some said they had taken control of most of the facility. Video footage showed smoke billowing from the refinery and the black flag used by ISIS flying from a building.
ISIS-led militants launched an assault on the Baiji refinery, about 130 miles north of the capital Baghdad
However, officials insisted that troops had resisted the advance.
Nearly all the 15,000 workers at the refinery and 100 foreign experts left on Tuesday when the plant was shut down in anticipation of the attack.
On Thursday morning, the remaining 250 to 300 workers were evacuated under an agreement brokered by local tribal leaders, one of the workers told the Reuters news agency.
The battle over Baiji, which supplies much of the country’s domestic fuel, has sparked fears that Iraqis will soon experience long lines at petrol pumps and electricity shortages.
On Wednesday there were fierce clashes in the Baquba, about 37 miles north of Baghdad, as jihadists again tried to enter the city centre and seize its prison.
Shia militiamen have been sent to assist in the defense of the capital of Diyala province, which has effectively become a frontline, and the nearby city of Samarra, site of a major Shia shrine.
PM Nouri al-Maliki has tried to assure Iraqis that the momentum is shifting.
The Iraqi government is awaiting President Barack Obama’s decision on air strikes.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warned that the US military still lacked sufficient intelligence to take action. He told a congressional hearing that pilots would have difficulty knowing who they were attacking from the air.
Asked if the intervention might come too late, Gen Dempsey said: “There is very little that could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq has failed its people. That is what has caused this problem.”
ISIS has exploited deep resentment among Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs, who have long accused Nouri al-Maliki of discriminating against them and monopolizing power.
Iraqi Islamist militants have invaded the country’s biggest oil refinery, after pounding it with mortars and machine guns from two directions.
An official quoted by Reuters said the militants now controlled 75% of the Baiji refinery, 130 miles north of Baghdad.
Government forces have made new air strikes on militants advancing towards the capital.
Fighting is also reported in the western city of Ramadi.
Iraqi Islamist militants now controlled 75 percent of the Baiji refinery, 130 miles north of Baghdad
The government is battling to push back ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and its Sunni Muslim allies in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, after the militants overran the second city, Mosul, last week.
PM Nouri al-Maliki appeared on television with Sunni Muslim and Kurdish leaders on Tuesday to issue a call for national unity in the face of the advance – they demanded that non-state forces lay down their arms.
However, such a call is unlikely to have much effect as Nouri al-Maliki has openly sponsored the formation of Shia Muslim militias to fight alongside regular Iraqi troops.
Hundreds of people have been killed since the start of the militant offensive last week, many of them believed to be captured soldiers publicly shot by ISIS-led firing squads.
During fighting in the city of Baquba this week, 44 prisoners were killed inside a police station in unclear circumstances.
The attack on the refinery started at 04:00 a.m. from outside two of the three main entrances to the refinery, according to Reuters.
Smoke rose from a spare parts warehouse and some stores of oil were reportedly destroyed.
“The militants have managed to break into the refinery,” the unnamed official told Reuters from inside the refinery.
“Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75% of the refinery.”
Foreign personnel were evacuated earlier but local staff reportedly remained in place, with the military defending the facility.
Baiji accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country’s entire refining capacity, all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things like petrol, cooking oil and fuel for power stations, an official told AP news agency.
Militants in the western province of Anbar, where the capital is Ramadi, said they had made advances, with a number of police stations near the town of Hit going over to dissident tribes.
Further north, the Iraqi government said it had recaptured the citadel in the strategic town of Tal Afar, where militants were said to have taken control on Monday.
Using unusually strong language, Nouri al-Maliki accused Saudi Arabia – which is largely Sunni – of backing ISIS. He also fired four army commanders for failing to halt the sweeping advance by the militants. They included the top commander for Nineveh, the first province where ISIS fighters made major gains.
Heavy clashes took place between Iraqi government forces and Sunni Islamist militants who have made major advances in the past week.
Reports say parts of the city of Baquba – just 37 miles from Baghdad – have been taken over by the rebels.
The US is deploying up to 275 military personnel to protect staff at its huge embassy in the capital.
Reports from Baquba – capital of Diyala province on the northern approaches to Baghdad – say rebels are reported to have taken over several quarters and captured the main police station, seizing many weapons.
At Tal Afar, a strategic city west of Mosul in the province of Nineveh, there are reports that reinforcements have arrived to boost government forces trying to recapture the town from rebels. The Iraqi air force is said to have been carrying out strikes in the area.
Heavy clashes took place between Iraqi government forces and Sunni Islamist militants who have made major advances in the past week (photo AP)
The city of 200,000 people, which has a mixed Sunni and Shia population, lies between Mosul and the Syrian border and was taken just before dawn on Monday.
In Anbar province to the west of Baghdad, Sunni militants shot down a government helicopter near the city of Falluja, and say they destroyed several tanks in fighting there. They also say army forces fled from a military base near Ramadi, the provincial capital.
Qasem Suleimani, the commander of an elite unit of Iran’s revolutionary guards, is reported to be in Baghdad, helping military leaders and Shia militias co-ordinate their campaign against the rebels.
In Vienna, US officials held brief discussions about Iraq with their Iranian counterparts at a meeting about Tehran’s nuclear program, but American officials have been quick to dismiss reports of military collaboration with a major foe.
In a letter to Congress, President Barack Obama said the 275 military personnel being sent to Iraq would protect US citizens and the embassy in Baghdad, and would remain there until the security situation improved.
A White House statement said that their main role would be to help embassy staff to relocate to US consulates in the cities of Basra in the south and Irbil in the north, and provide airfield management and security.
President Barack Obama has already ruled out sending in ground troops to fight alongside Iraqi government forces, but drone strikes remain a possibility.
The aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush has been deployed to the Gulf, accompanied by two more warships.
The UN says that ISIS fighters have carried out hundreds of summary executions since their offensive began last week.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said that systematic killings in the north of the country “almost certainly amounted to war crimes”.