Baghdad— Iraqi forces and Sunni militants battled fiercely for control of the nation’s largest oil refinery on Wednesday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on a diplomatic offensive, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation’s disaffected Sunnis and Kurds.
Meanwhile, the government asserted that it had retaken partial control of a strategic city, Tal Afar, near the border with Syria.
Al-Maliki’s conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the militants a “lesson,” came as almost all Iraq’s main communities have been drawn into a spasm of violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings nearly a decade ago.
The U.S. has been pressing al-Maliki to adopt political inclusion and undermine the insurgency by making overtures to Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, which has long complained of discrimination by his government and abuses by his Shiite-led security forces.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has rejected charges of bias against Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and has in recent days been stressing that the threat posed by the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.
In a move apparently designed to satisfy President Barack Obama’s demand for national reconciliation, al-Maliki expressed optimism in a televised address Wednesday over what he called the rise by all of Iraq’s political groups to the challenge of defending the nation against the militant threat.
The chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said Iraqi army troops had defended the refinery at Beiji, some 155 miles north of Baghdad, and 40 attackers were killed in fighting there overnight and early Wednesday.