Top Shiite cleric urges Iraqis to fight advancing militants
BAGHDAD // Iraq’s top Shiite cleric yesterday urged Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni militants marching on Baghdad, as thousands volunteered to bolster the capital’s defences.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s call came as the US president Barack Obama said he was considering a range of options to halt the offensive led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
But Mr Obama warned that Iraq’s leaders had to address deep sectarian divisions.
“Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” Ayatollah Al Sistani’s representative said at Friday prayers in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala.
The elderly cleric, who rarely appears in public, is highly influential among Shiites and adored by millions.
Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki travelled to the embattled city of Samarra north of the capital for a security meeting.
Mr Al Maliki said security forces “began their work to clear all our dear cities from these terrorists”, without giving details of where or when operations had started.
But ISIL entered two more towns in Diyala province on Friday – Jalula, 125 kilometres north-east of Baghdad, and Sadiyah, 95km north of the Iraqi capital.
Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts there without any resistance, police officials said.
The militants were gathering for a new attempt to take Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine where a 2006 bombing sparked a deadly sectarian war.
Residents of Samarra, just 110km from Baghdad, said gunmen were gathering to the north, east and south-east of the city.
The militants have already twice attacked Samarra, once on Wednesday and once late last week, but were thwarted after heavy fighting.
They have taken a huge swath of mainly Sunni territory in northern and north-central Iraq since their offensive in Mosul on Monday.
Tikrit fell to ISIL on Wednesday and Dhuluiya in Diyala province on Thursday.
Their rapid advance has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011, and has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could result in partitions for Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Speaking at the White House on Friday, Mr Obama did not specify what options he was considering to counter the militant offensive, but repeated that American troops would not be sent back into combat in Iraq.
“We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which after we’re not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country,” he said.
Shiite neighbour Iran has indicated its willingness to confront the growing threat from the militant forces.
Iran’s official Irna news agency reported that former members of Tehran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard have announced they were prepared to fight in Iraq against ISIL.
And Iranian state TV quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying his country would do all it can to battle terrorism next door.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism,” it quoted Mr Rouhani as telling the Iraqi prime minister.
But Iranian officials denied reports that their forces were already fighting inside Iraq.
Meanwhile, the UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has warned of “murder of all kinds” and other war crimes in Iraq, where her office says the number of those killed in recent days may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded could approach 1,000.
Ms Pillay said her office had received reports that militants rounded up and killed Iraqi army soldiers and as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.
Her office is hearing of “summary executions and extrajudicial killings” as ISIL militants overran Iraqi cities and towns this week.
“I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies,” Ms Pillay said.
“And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children.”
The UN said it had received reports of women committing suicide after being raped or forced to marry ISIL fighters and the summary execution of people believed to have worked for the police.
The International Organisation for Migration estimated on Friday that 40,000 people had fled Tikrit and Samarra, adding to half a million people believed to have fled Mosul.
* Agence France-Press and Associated Press
Updated: June 14, 2014 04:00 AM