- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

President Obama reviewed military options in Iraq with congressional leaders Wednesday as advancing militants forced the shutdown of the country’s biggest oil refinery and Republicans accused Mr. Obama of dithering while hard-fought U.S. gains were being lost.

The president held an hourlong meeting at the White House with lawmakers from both parties, who emerged without indicating what actions Mr. Obama might take to halt the advancement of thousands of fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Obama “briefed us on the approach he’s taking toward developing a strategy for Iraq.”

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“Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces are now less capable than when the president withdrew the entirety of our force [in 2011] without successfully negotiating a remaining U.S. presence capable of preserving our gains and mentoring our partners,” Mr. McConnell said.

The White House said Mr. Obama updated lawmakers on his efforts to respond to the threats “by urging Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian agendas and to come together with a sense of national unity.”

Mr. Obama also discussed proposed “increased security assistance” to Baghdad, the White House said.

PHOTOS: Fighting in Iraq

An official at Iraq’s largest domestic oil refinery said Sunni militants took over 75 percent of the facility in Baiji after clashes with Iraqi security forces.

“The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watchtowers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” said an official speaking from inside the refinery.

Two fuel storage tanks were reportedly in flames at the refinery, about 155 miles north of the capital of Baghdad. An official said militants targeted the oil refinery with mortars and machine guns.

In response, Iraqi security forces and helicopter gunships bombarded positions of the militants inside the refinery. Iraq’s government denied reports that the facility had been overrun.

Iraq’s chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said government forces repelled the siege.

Gen. al-Moussawi said 40 militants were killed in the fighting overnight and early Wednesday. There was no independent confirmation either of his claims or of claims that the Iraqi military retook neighborhoods in Tal Afar.

As the fighting raged over the past week and threatened to break apart Iraq, lawmakers of both parties in Congress urged Mr. Obama to devise a plan quickly to counter the militants, who are linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network and seek to create a safe haven for their group.

The president on Monday ordered up to 275 combat-ready troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and help relocate some of the thousands of Americans in the country, but has ruled out deploying combat troops to engage the ISIL forces.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers in a hearing Wednesday that the president’s options include airstrikes, but administration officials are still weighing the risks.

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