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Officials: Iraq seeks US air power against militants

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia - Iraq has requested U.S. air power to try to reverse rapid territorial gains by Sunni Muslim insurgents, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday.

Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters Iraq had asked for air strikes "to break the morale" of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has captured cities and towns in the north in a lightning advance over the past week.

He added that Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government but "everything is possible".

In Washington, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged to Congress on Wednesday that Iraq had sought U.S. air support, but gave no details of the request.

"We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power," Dempsey told a hearing.

Asked whether the United States should honor that request, Dempsey answered indirectly, saying: "It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them."

Speaking after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Zebari said air power was needed to start to roll back gains by the insurgents, who have captured large amounts of weaponry from the Iraqi army during their advance.

"I explained to our Arab brothers in the meeting, that Iraq officially requested the United States' help according to the ... strategic agreement between Iraq and the United States of America, to direct air strikes (on) some of the group's vital targets to break this state of morale now present, and to ... begin the operation of defeating them," he said.

Zebari also criticized what he said was the lack of a condemnation by Riyadh of massacres by ISIL.

Iraq has accused Sunni power Saudi Arabia of backing the group, a charge strongly denied by Riyadh, which designated ISIL a terrorist organization last month.

"The first reaction that we heard from the kingdom after the events in Iraq, was that it was all due to exclusionary (policies) and sectarianism (by the Iraqi government). There was no reference to...the slaughter, the bloodletting and the killing," Zebari said.