BAGHDAD, June 19 (Xinhua) -- Fierce clashes between Iraqi security forces and Sunni militant groups continued in several Iraqi provinces on Thursday, as government troops repelled multiple militant attacks on a major oil refinery in Salahudin province, security sources said.
The security forces, with air support, fought back several militant offensives against the oil refinery of Baiji, located some 200 km north of the capital Baghdad, Lieutenant General Qassim Atta and security spokesman of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki said at a news conference in Baghdad.
"Baiji refinery is under full control of the Iraqi security forces, who killed some 70 terrorists and burned 17 vehicles," Atta said.
He added that the security forces on Wednesday repelled several attacks from different directions by hundreds of Sunni militants, including those who are linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaida offshoot.
Earlier, insurgent groups overran the city of Baiji as well as large parts of the Sunni-predominant province of Salahudin, including its capital Tikrit, some 170 km north of Baghdad.
In Iraq's northern province of Nineveh, security forces backed by volunteers continued fighting militant groups in the city of Tal Afar, some 70 km west of the provincial capital Mosul, and retook control of some neighborhoods, Atta said.
"The security forces killed 50 terrorists and burned 15 vehicles during the operations in Tal Afar," he said.
A security source in the province told Xinhua that the Sunni militants had seized part of Tal Afar airport and that fierce battles were underway in the airport as well as across the city.
Tal Afar is the largest city in the Sunni-majority province of Nineveh after the provincial capital Mosul, some 400 km north of Baghdad, and is also the last foothold of the Iraqi Shiite-led government in Nineveh province, except for the parts that are under the Kurdish security forces.
Tal Afar is also a mixed city of mainly Shiite and Sunni Turkomans, in addition to the Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities.
The battles in Tal Afar pushed most of its 250,000 population to flee their homes, mainly to the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and the city of Sinjar, some 60 km west of Tal Afar.
The Sunni-majority province of Nineveh and its capital Mosul have long been a stronghold for insurgent groups, including al- Qaida militants, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Early on Thursday, security sources in the country's eastern province of Diyala told Xinhua that a total of 18 Sunni militants and a civilian were killed in clashes with Iraqi security forces across the province during the day.
In one of the battles, Iraqi helicopter gunships bombed posts of Sunni militant groups, including ISIL militants, around the city of Udheim, some 60 km north of Diyala's provincial capital Baquba, leaving 15 militants killed and dozens others wounded.
Iraqi army, police and Shiite militia on Thursday launched an offensive to retake control of nine villages around Udheim, which were seized earlier by the militant groups.
Separately, three Sunni militants were killed and four others wounded in a clash early Thursday between the militants and Kurdish security forces, known as Peshmerga, in the city of Jalawlaa, some 130 km northeast of Baghdad, a provincial police source said.
During the day, the Sunni militants withdrew from neighborhoods in the southern part of Jalawlaa after an artillery shelling by the Kurdish security forces, the source said.
Also on Thursday, a civilian was killed and another wounded in clashes in the city of Maqdadiyah, some 40 km north of Baquba, the source said.
Diyala province, which stretches from eastern edges of Baghdad to the borders with Iran, has long been the stronghold of al-Qaida militant groups as well as a hotbed of insurgency and sectarian violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq has seen a deteriorating security situation since June 10 when bloody clashes broke out between security forces and hundreds of Sunni militants who took control of Mosul and later seized swathes of territories after the Iraqi security forces withdrew from their posts in Nineveh and other predominantly Sunni provinces.
Spearheaded by ISIL fighters, the insurgency also included a wide coalition of other Sunni Arab militant groups, as well as loyalists of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Facing the swift advance of the Sunni militants, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been urging the United States to intervene by launching air strikes on insurgents.
The Obama administration has not ruled out any options, including airstrikes, while also urged the Iraqi government to exercise greater political inclusion.