A senior cleric has urged Iraqis to unite and fight against the Sunni Islamic militants which have seized swathes of the country in recent days. The call to arms came as Iraqi army helicopters launched an attack in the city of Tikrit today and neighbouring Iran indicated its willingness to help Baghdad's embattled government, perhaps even joining forces with the US to do so.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, told his followers to defend their country against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni Muslim al Qaeda splinter group, which has spearheaded militant forces sweeping across parts of the country towards the capital.
"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," Sistani's representative Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai said during Friday prayer.
Meanwhile, military helicopters fired rockets at or near one of Tikrit's largest mosques, according to local officials and witnesses cited by Reuters.
ISIS, which wishes to establish an Islamic caliphate in an area of Iraq and neighbouring Syria, began a lightning advance when it overran the country's second largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, taking control of government offices, military bases, and police stations, while also seizing weapons and aircraft. It then seized former ruler Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and Iraq's biggest oil refinery town Baiji on Wednesday, and went on to take the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla in Diyala province near the Iranian border.
There were reports of executions in the groups newly acquired territory, where it has also imposed Sharia laws for its recently captured Iraqi territory. These include requiring women to wear loose, all covering clothing and banning alcohol, drugs, and smoking.
The fall of Mosul and ISIS's subsequent advance will be a major hit to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government, which has been struggling to contain Sunni extremists in the country for some time.
ISIS's sudden gains in Iraq have spooked the international community. In particular, the US, which only left the country in 2011 after an eight year occupation, and neighbouring Shiite powerhouse Iran. The latter is reportedly so worried that officials are even thinking of working together with longtime foe, the US. An Iranian official told Reuters that the country's leadership had been discussing buddying up with the "Great Satan" to help their beleaguered mutual ally mount a counter attack. Iran will also supply military advisors and weapons.
"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."
According to his office, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called Maliki today to say that Iran "will not tolerate the [acts of] violence and terror.”
US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that "all options" were being considered to support the Iraqi government. Asked about air strikes, he said, "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."
Today, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Obama will likely decide soon exactly how to proceed.
"Given the gravity of the situation, I would anticipate timely decisions from the president regarding the challenge," he told reporters at a conference in London.
The US has reportedly already been flying reconnaissance drones over the area. However, Obama has ruled out the use of ground forces.
"Given the gravity of the situation, I would anticipate timely decisions from the president regarding the challenge."
Kerry also said that Maliki should attempt to end sectarian divide in Iraq. This could be tough; many of Iraq's large Sunni minority population see the prime minister as having used the armed forces as a tool for Shiite interests.
ISIS took the western city of Fallujah early this year, but despite repeated efforts, government troops have not been able to dislodge them. The group is also active in Syria, just across the border from Ninevah Province where Mosul is located.
There, a recent offensive has seen it advance into oil-rich Deir al-Zor and to the northeast bank of the Euphrates, taking territory from Islamic brigades fighting mainly against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), it has temporarily put its Syria operations on hold while it resupplies with weapons seized from the Iraqi army. SOHR said that ISIS may even have arranged a temporary ceasefire with some Syrian rebel brigades.
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