BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said Wednesday that his government has regained the initiative after the “shock” defeat of its army and security forces in a lightning attack by Sunni militants in the country’s north. Meanwhile, diplomats said they were investigating claims of some 100 foreign workers being kidnapped in areas under militant control.
Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has been in office since 2006, said in a televised address that the loss last week of a large swath of territory has helped Iraq restore its national unity.
“We were able to contain the strike and arrest deterioration. … We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back,” al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki’s upbeat assessment came as news broke of government forces regaining parts of a strategic city near the Syrian border that was captured Monday by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
It also came hours after the chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said government forces on Wednesday repelled an attack by militants on the country’s largest oil refinery at Beiji, north of the capital. He said 40 attackers were killed in fighting there overnight and on Wednesday morning.
The Beiji refinery 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 gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations. Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq.
In New Delhi, the Foreign Ministry said that 40 Indian construction workers have been kidnapped in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said its diplomats were investigating claims that militants abducted 60 foreign construction workers, including some 15 Turks, near the oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said the government has been unable to contact the workers.
There are about 10,000 Indian citizens working and living in Iraq. Akbaruddin said only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas. That includes the construction workers near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as 46 Indian nurses working in a hospital in the Iraqi town of Tikrit. Both Mosul and Tikri were captured by the Islamic State last week.
Akbaruddin said humanitarian organizations have been in touch with the nurses, who are safe and have been advised to avoid travel by road.
India sent a senior diplomat to Baghdad on Wednesday.
Near Kirkuk, which Kurdish fighters took over from fleeing Iraqi soldiers amid the militants’ advance, the Islamic State kidnapped 60 foreign construction workers building a hospital, Turkey’s private Dogan news agency reported Wednesday. The agency based its report on an unnamed worker who was reportedly freed by the militants.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry could not immediately confirm the report but said its embassy was investigating.
Associated Press writers Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.