BAGHDAD — Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships appeared to be holding on after three days of battle against Sunni militants Thursday for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own fate seemed increasingly in play with political leaders meeting in recent days behind closed doors and discussing his future, a Shi’ite lawmaker said.
The loss of the Beiji oil refinery, some 155 miles north of Baghdad, would be a devastating symbol of the Baghdad government’s powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West. By late Thursday, the two sides held different parts of the refinery, which extends over several square kilometers of desert.
The tenacious fight for the refinery reflected the government’s desperation to hold on to a shrinking share of the country and stop the momentum of the Sunni extremists, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria allied with Sunni tribes and elements of Saddam Hussein’s old Ba’ath Party. It also represented Maliki’s need for a military victory as leaders in both Baghdad and Washington questioned whether he should remain in office.
Shi’ite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist who is also a Shi’ite; and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who served as Iraq’s first prime minister after Hussein’s ouster.
Mahdi belongs to a moderate Shi’ite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has close links with Iran.
Also lobbying for the job is Ahmad Chalabi, a Shi’ite lawmaker who recently joined the Supreme Council and was once a favorite by Washington to lead Iraq a decade ago. Another Shi’ite from the Supreme Council who is trying to land the job is Bayan Jabr, a former finance and interior minister under Maliki’s tenure, said the politicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
An Iraqi Shi’ite lawmaker, Hakim al-Zamili, said he was aware of a meeting in recent days between Iraqi political leaders and US officials about the issue of Maliki’s future. He said he did not know who attended the meeting.
Zamili belongs to a political bloc loyal to anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has publicly demanded that Maliki, in office since 2006, be replaced.
But Zamili indicated that he thought efforts to replace Maliki should come only after Iraqi security forces beat back the Sunni militants.
‘‘My view is that safeguarding Iraq is now our top priority,’’ Zamili said, referring to the loss of a vast chunk of northern Iraq to the militants in the past week. ‘‘We will settle the accounts later.’’
Mohammed al-Khaldi, a top aide to outgoing Sunni speaker of Parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, said: ‘‘We have asked the Americans, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward denying Maliki a new term. The Shi’ite bloc must find a replacement for him.’’
Besides the Sunnis, many of Maliki’s former Kurdish and Shi’ite allies have been clamoring to deny the prime minister a third term in office, charging that he has excluded them from a narrow decision-making circle of close confidants.
‘‘We wanted him to go, but after what happened last week, we want it even more,’’ said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician.
Maliki said this week that the newly elected Parliament will meet within days to elect a new president who will, in turn, ask the leader of the chamber’s largest bloc to form a new government. His State of the Law bloc won 92 of the chamber’s 328 seats in the April 30 election. He needs a majority of at least 165 lawmakers.
It took Maliki several months after the 2010 parliamentary elections to cobble together a government.
The prime minister, who has long faced criticism for not making his government more inclusive, has been adopting conciliatory language in recent days toward Sunnis and Kurds. He said the militant threat affects all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation and called on Iraqis to drop all ‘‘Sunnis and Shi’ite’’ talk.
Maliki also made a show of meeting Tuesday with Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders. A statement issued after the meeting said they agreed to set aside differences and focus on ‘‘national priorities.’’