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Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants who have taken the country’s north gesture from an army truck in Baghdad on June 13, 2014. (AHMED SAAD/REUTERS)
Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants who have taken the country’s north gesture from an army truck in Baghdad on June 13, 2014. (AHMED SAAD/REUTERS)

Senior Shia cleric issues call to arms against militants in Iraq Add to ...

Iraq’s top Shia cleric exhorted all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms Friday to combat the marauding Sunni extremist militants who have seized broad stretches of the country this week and are threatening the wobbly Shiite-led central government in Baghdad.

The call to arms by the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, was the most urgent sign yet of the growing desperation of the country’s Shia majority in the face of a resurgent Sunni militant movement drawn from the insurgency in neighbouring Syria and vestiges of the Saddam Hussein loyalists toppled from power by the U.S.-led invasion a decade ago.

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Sheik al-Sistani’s plea came as both the United States and Iran, adversaries on a range of issues, including the Syria conflict, were both seeking ways to help the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and avoid a collapse in Iraq that would further destabilize the Middle East.

At the same time, the ayatollah’s plea also risked plunging Iraq further into the pattern of sectarian bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites that convulsed the country during the height of the U.S. occupation.

For the United States, the chaos engulfing Iraq risks re-entangling the U.S. military in a conflict the Obama administration spent its first term winding down. Obama, in a televised statement Friday, said it was clear that al-Maliki’s government needed more help and that the United States was weighing a range of options. But Obama said he would not be sending troops back and U.S. military aid alone was not a solution.

“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together,” he said. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things” while the political leaders fail to address the underlying fissures dividing Iraqi society.

For Iran’s Shiite leaders, the Iraq crisis represents a direct Sunni militant threat on their doorstep. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, arrived in Baghdad on Thursday and has been reviewing how Iraq’s Shia militias are prepared to defend Baghdad and other areas, according to a report on Iranwire, a website run by expatriate Iranian journalists.

“The mobilization of the Shia militias, and Qassem Suleimani’s presence, is a very good indication of how seriously they’re taking this,” Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House research group, said in an interview with Iranwire from Baghdad.

Even with their shared interests in a stable Iraq, there was no overt sign of co-operation or communication between Washington and Tehran on the crisis. Marie Harf, deputy State Department spokeswoman, told reporters Friday that “we are not talking to the Iranians about Iraq.”

Thousands of Iraqi Shiites responded to the call by al-Sistani, 83, whose statements carry enormous weight among not just the Shiite majority but members of other groups including some Sunnis. The statement, read by his representative during Friday prayers, said it was “the legal and national responsibility of whoever can hold a weapon to hold it to defend the country, the citizens and the holy sites.”

The representative of al-Sistani, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaie, spoke in Karbala, regarded by Shiites as one of Iraq’s holiest cities. The sheikh said volunteers “must fill the gaps within the security forces,” but cautioned that they should not do any more than that.

The statement stopped short of calling for a general armed response to the incursion led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni extremist group that has emerged as one of the most potent opposition forces in the Syrian civil war and that now controls large areas of both Syria and northern Iraq.

Sheik al-Sistani’s statement emphasized that all Iraqis should join the fight, so the country does not slide into all-out sectarian warfare. But in a time of mounting frictions and deepening distrust between the sects, it appeared unlikely that many Sunnis would answer the ayatollah’s call. Many Sunnis feel little sympathy either for the government or for the extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Volunteers began to appear at the southern gate to Baghdad, which leads to the predominantly Shiite south of the country, within an hour after al-Karbalaie broadcast al-Sistani’s call.

At the police post there, by the soaring arches that mark the city limits, a pickup truck driven by elders pulled up with six young men in the back.

“We heard Ali Sistani’s call for jihad, so we’re coming here to fight the terrorism everywhere, not just in Iraq,” said Ali Mohsin Alwan al-Amiri, one of the elders.

The Sunni insurgents continued their offensive Friday, fanning out to the east of the Tigris River, and at least temporarily seized two towns near the Iranian border, Sadiyah and Jalawla. Security officials in Baghdad said government troops, backed by Kurdish forces, counterattacked several hours later and forced the insurgents to withdraw, a rare success.

The Kurds control a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq and have long sought independence. As the militants advanced Thursday, their forces took full control of Kirkuk, an oil center that had been contested by the Kurds and the country’s Arab leaders for years, after the Iraqi army abandoned its posts there.

The apparent disintegration of some units of the U.S.-armed Iraqi army and the loss of control of Kirkuk and the Sunni areas overrun by the militants represented the worst security crisis in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, threatening the country’s future as a cohesive state.

Both the United States and Iran have watched events with alarm and have issued warnings of possible intervention.

In its language and tone, al-Sistani’s statement portrayed it as a religious and patriotic act to volunteer either for the Iraqi army or for a Shiite militia, two forces that are becoming difficult to distinguish.

When Sheik al-Karbalaie said, “Whoever can hold a weapon has to volunteer to join the security forces,” the call was greeted with cheers and shouts of “It will be done!”

People in al-Sistani’s office said the statement was a response to one issued by the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant threatening to seize not just the predominantly Sunni areas of northern Iraq, but also Baghdad and the cities of Karbala and Najaf, which are sacred to Shiite Muslims.

“Iraq and the Iraqi people are facing great danger,” al-Karbalaie said. “The terrorists are not aiming to control just several provinces. They said clearly they are targeting all other provinces including Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf. So the responsibility to face

Since the insurgents captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, senior officers in the army have been meeting with local committees and Shiite militias in Baghdad and asking them to round up volunteers to bolster the government forces. Maj. Gen. Abdul Jabbar, commander of the 11th Division, went to a stadium in the Hussainiya neighborhood to speak to a gathering of local sheikhs, and called on each of them to produce 50 volunteers.

On the main axis of the insurgent advance, the highway running south from Mosul to the capital, there were no indications Friday that the militants had succeeded in taking Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, which is home to a Shiite shrine and is defended by Shiite militias.

“We hope that all the Shiite groups will come together and move as one man to protect Baghdad and the other Shiite areas,” said Abu Mujahid, one of the militia leaders.

Iran’s state-run news media reported this week that Tehran had strengthened its forces along the Iraq border and suspended all pilgrim visas into Iraq, but had received no request from Iraq for military help. Reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guards troops had crossed the border into Iraq to assist the government forces could not be confirmed; Shiite militia leaders in the capital said they knew of no such move and had not asked Iran to send troops.

The insurgents have pledged to march on Baghdad, but seizing and controlling the sprawling Iraqi capital, with its large population of Shiites, is likely to prove much more difficult than advancing across a Sunni heartland with little sympathy for the central government.

For its part, al-Maliki’s administration has seemed bewildered by the crisis. It was unable to muster a quorum in parliament this week to approve a state of emergency.

On Friday, however, an spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying, “We put in place a new plan to protect Baghdad.”them and fight them is the responsibility of all, not one sect or one party. The responsibility now is saving Iraq, saving our country, saving the holy places of Iraq.”

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