Iraq top Shi'ite cleric issues call to fight rebels, civil war feared
Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric urged his followers to take up arms to defend themselves against a relentless advance by Sunni militants, in a sharp escalation of a conflict which is threatening civil war and the potential break-up of the country.
In a rare intervention at today prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the highest religious authority for the Shi'ites in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against advancing militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Fighters under the black flag of ISIL captured two more Iraqi towns overnight in a lightning sweep south towards the capital Baghdad in a campaign to recreate a mediaeval caliphate carved out of fragmenting Iraq and Syria.
"People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country ... should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal," said Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, delivering Sistani's message to the faithful.
Those killed fighting ISIL militants would be martyrs, he said as worshippers chanted in acknowledgement.
US President Barack Obama threatened military strikes against ISIL yesterday, highlighting the gravity of the group's threat to redraw borders in an oil-rich region.
In the spreading chaos, Iraqi Kurdish forces have seized control of Kirkuk, an oil hub just outside their autonomous enclave that they have long seen as their traditional capital.
Thrusting further to the southeast after their seizure of the major Iraqi city of Mosul in the far north and the late dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, ISIL entered two towns in Diyala province bordering Iran.
Saadiyah and Jalawla had fallen to the Sunni Muslim insurgents after government troops fled their positions, along with several villages around the Himreen mountains that have long been a hideout for militants, security sources said.
The Iraqi army fired artillery shells at Saadiyah and Jalawla from the nearby town of Muqdadiya, sending dozens of families fleeing towards Khaniqin near the Iranian border.
Obama said yesterday he was considering "all options" to support Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-dominated central government that took full control when the U.S. occupation ended in 2011, eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam.
"I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria," Obama said at the White House, when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes.
"In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily," he said. A U.S. defense official said the United States had been flying surveillance drones over Iraq to help it fight ISIL.
US officials later said that US ground forces would not return to Iraq.