Faced with a militant offensive sweeping south toward Baghdad, Iraqi Shiite tribesmen parade with their weapons in central Baghdad's Palestine Street. (AFP Photo)
Iraq has asked the United States to conduct air strikes against jihadist-led Sunni militants who have seized key cities and large swathes of the country, foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Wednesday.
"Iraq has officially asked Washington to help under the security agreement (between the two countries), and to conduct air strikes against terrorist groups," Zebari told reporters in Saudi Arabia.
Militants, spearheaded by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and joined by supporters of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, have in the past week overrun a large chunk of northern and north-central Iraq, although their advance has since been slowed.
"A military approach will not be enough. We acknowledge the need for drastic political solutions," Zebari said.
The United States spent millions of dollars over several years training and arming a new Iraqi army after disbanding the Sunni-led force created by the late dictator Saddam Hussein.
President Barack Obama has sent a small number of military personnel to Baghdad to strengthen security for the US embassy and is weighing potential military options, including air strikes, to counter the militant onslaught.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates said it had recalled its ambassador to Iraq for consultations over the growing unrest and slammed the Shiite-led government's "sectarian" policies.
A foreign ministry statement voiced "serious concern" about "exclusionary and sectarian policies that marginalise essential components of the Iraqi people," in reference to the Arab Sunni minority.
The UAE warned that the policies of the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, will only contribute to "escalate political tension and jeopardise security."
"The only way to salvage Iraq and protect its territorial integrity and stability is through adopting a consensual national approach that brings (Iraqis) together and does not exclude" any party, the UAE ministry said in a statement carried by WAM state news agency.
Earlier the UAE's Gulf Arab partner Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of civil war in Iraq after Sunni militants seized large areas from the government, and also called for a "national consensus government".
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have this week blamed "sectarian" policies by Iraq's government against the Sunni Arab minority for the unrest that has swept the country.
Militants spearheaded by powerful jihadist group the ISIS and joined by supporters of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, launched their offensive on June 9.
Read: 40 Indian workers abducted in Mosul, govt clueless on whereabouts
Since then they have captured Mosul, a city of two million people, and a big chunk of mainly Sunni Arab territory stretching south towards the capital.
Militants attacked Iraq's main oil refinery on Wednesday as they pressed a major offensive, while Baghdad vowed to "face terrorism" amid warnings the country could fall apart.
But even as officials touted progress, militants seized three villages in northern Iraq and India said 40 of its nationals had been kidnapped in Mosul, a city whose capture last week by insurgents marked the beginning of the onslaught.
With regional tensions rising, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic republic "will do everything" to protect Shiite shrines in Iraqi cities against the militant assault.
And Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region.
Read: Militants attack Iraq's largest oil refinery in major offensive
The attack on the refinery complex, in Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, was launched before dawn, according to a senior official and a refinery employee.
Though Iraqi forces managed to kill 40 militants and repel the attack, according to Atta, some tanks containing refined products caught fire. The official and employee said security forces suffered casualties, but Atta did not provide details.
The refinery was shut down and some employees evacuated on Tuesday due to a drop in demand caused by the militant drive, which is being spearheaded by jihadists from the ISIS.
World oil producers have cautiously watched the unfolding chaos in Iraq, which currently exports around 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, but have stressed that the country's vast crude supplies, mostly in the south, are safe -- for now.
Watch: Gunfight between security forces and Sunni militants in Iraq
The swift advance of militants has sparked international alarm, with the UN's envoy to Baghdad warning that the crisis was "life-threatening for Iraq".
Analysts suggested that the country could unravel, surviving at best as a federal state.
"Never before has the prospect of partition of Arab Iraq been more of a possibility," said Fanar Haddad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.
John Drake, an expert on Iraq with British security group AKE, was asked if Iraq could remain united.
"I don't think it's impossible, but it is highly unlikely," was his verdict.
Police and officials reported that militants had Wednesday moved into the Shiite Turkmen area of Bashir in Kirkuk province and also seized three villages in Salaheddin province.
The foreign ministry in New Delhi, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that 40 Indian construction workers had been abducted in Mosul.
Spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said 46 Indian nurses were also stranded in the militant-held Iraqi city of Tikrit, waiting for the turmoil to subside.
ISIS fighters kidnapped 49 Turks including diplomats and children from the Turkish consulate in Mosul on Wednesday last week, after earlier seizing 31 Turkish truck drivers.
In a bid to see off the militant offensive, Maliki sacked several top security commanders on Tuesday evening, and then stood alongside several of his main rivals in a rare display of unity among the country's fractious political leaders.
Maliki also ordered that one officer face court martial for desertion.
Full coverage: Iraq on the brink
The dismissals came after soldiers and police fled en masse as insurgents on Tuesday last week swept into Mosul, a city of two million.
Some abandoned their vehicles and uniforms when faced with the insurgents, which are led by ISIL fighters but also include loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.