As fighting raged at Iraq's largest oil refinery between extremist insurgents and Iraqi security forces, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed the United States is contemplating sharing information with Iran over the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed rebellion, but is not seeking to work "hand-in-hand" with Tehran to address the crisis.
The U.S. and Iran are seen as the two main backers of Iraq's embattled Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and there has been much speculation that the fight against Sunni insurgents, who have seized vast swathes of Iraq's north, could provide a rare opportunity for cooperation between the long-hostile powers.
"We are interested in communicating with Iran. That the Iranians know what we're thinking, that we know what they're thinking and there is a sharing of information so people aren't making mistakes," Kerry said in an interview on NBC News that aired on Thursday.
Asked if the United States was considering working hand-in-hand with Iran, Kerry said: "No. We're not sitting around contemplating how we're going to do that or if we're going to do that. That's not on the table," Kerry added.
Kerry’s comments came a day after Iraq's foreign minister formally asked the U.S. to launch air attacks to put down a week-long rebellion by ISIL fighters.
Hoshyar Zebari told a news conference on Wednesday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that a request had been made "to break the morale" of ISIL fighters. The statement came as Iraqi security forces battled for the country's main oil refinery and claimed to regain partial control of a city near the Syrian border.
Kerry reiterated Thursday that "all options" – including drone strikes – are still available to President Barack Obama, who is weighing how to respond to the rebellion.
On Wednesday, Obama told Congressional leaders he did not need Congress' approval for any action in Iraq, a leading Senate Republican said. After a meeting between the president and senior members of Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell told reporters the president "indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take."
White House officials have suggested Obama may be able to act on his own as the Iraq government has requested U.S. military assistance.
Obama is also facing growing calls from U.S. lawmakers to persuade Maliki to step down over what they see as failed leadership and refusal to be inclusive of Sunnis, helping to fuel the insurgency now threatening his country.
David Petraeus, the general who served as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Wednesday that Iraq needed a more inclusive government – not U.S. airstrikes.
"This cannot be the United States being the air force of Shia militias or a Shia-on-Sunni Arab fight," Petraeus said at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, in London.
But Kerry added in the interview: "What the United States is doing is about Iraq, it's not about Maliki. Nothing the president decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki. It is focused on the people of Iraq."
Weighing military options in Iraq, US faces legal, tactical challenges
Any military strikes to stem ISIL's gains appear on hold, but legal and battlefield challenges remain unanswered
Maliki, who has called for all willing Iraqis to take up arms and help the security forces, said Wednesday the government had "started our counter-offensive, regaining the initiative and striking back."
Maliki's relatively upbeat assessment came as the military claimed its forces regained parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, which ISIL fighters captured on Monday.
But ISIL fighters, who want to carve out an Islamic caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria, have reportedly made progress at Iraq's largest oil refinery. The rebels hung their black banners on watch towers at the Baiji refinery, 150 miles north of Baghdad, a witness said Thursday, though a top Iraqi security official said the government still held the facility.
The Iraqi witness, who drove past the sprawling Baiji refinery, said fighters also manned checkpoints around it. He said he saw a huge fire in one of its tankers. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
A relative of an official at the refinery had told Al Jazeera that "75 per cent of the refinery was under the control of the rebels" as of Wednesday.
The Iraqi security official said the government force protecting the refinery was still inside Thursday and that they were in regular contact with Baghdad. The refinery's workers had been evacuated to nearby villages, he said.
The army officer in charge of protecting the refinery, Col. Ali al-Qureishi, told state-run Iraqiya television by telephone that the facility remained under his control. He said his forces had killed nearly 100 fighters since Tuesday.
Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani praised "the heroic sons of the armed forces" at the refinery in a statement. They "are putting up a spirited fight to prevent the terrorists from reaching its walls despite the ferocity of the repeated attacks," he said.
But oil companies Exxon Mobil and BP have started evacuating all non-essential staff from Iraq, and concerns have risen among oil importers about supplies.
The Baiji refinery accounts for just over 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 Baiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already engulfing Iraq.
The assault on the refinery has also affected global gasoline prices, as the U.S. national average price reached $3.67 per gallon, the highest price for this time of year since 2008, the year gasoline hit its all-time high in America.
Meanwhile in Salaheddin province, the fighters seized three villages, Albu Hassan, Birwajli and Bastamli, in northern Iraq on Wednesday during clashes with Iraq's security forces and residents.
The fighting left at least 20 civilians dead, Shallal Abdul Baban, a local official, said.
Al Jazeera and wire services