Iraq’s Shia religious leaders called on citizens to take up weapons and defend their country from the hardline Sunni insurgents who have seized huge swathes of Iraqi land this week, in a call-to-arms that both answered the desperate pleas of the weak central government and added to widespread worries that the country could descend into sectarian conflict.
In a statement delivered at Friday prayers in Karbala, one of the holiest cities for Iraq’s Shias, a representative for the country’s premier Shia cleric 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” from the Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, speaking on behalf of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said volunteer gunmen “must fill the gaps within the security forces,” though he stopped short of endorsing the mass mobilization of extra-governmental militias, which has already begun.
While he addressed all Iraqis — not just Shias — his call seemed unlikely to rally support among the country’s disaffected Sunni minority for the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who many accuse of stoking the sectarian tensions that ISIL has exploited in their sudden takeover.
On Friday, the rebels captured two strategically important towns in the province of Diyala, building on their current holdings that include Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. As with most of its advances in Iraq, ISIL encountered minimal resistance from Iraqi security forces as it took over the towns of Jalulah and Saaiydiyah. Witnesses told Al Jazeera the men fled their posts after ISIL fighters announced over loudspeakers that if they laid down their weapons, they would not be harmed.
The Iraqi army later fired missiles at the two towns, sending dozens of families fleeing towards the Iranian border town of Khaniqin.
ISIL, which has been active in some of Iraq’s Sunni-majority regions for years, has been boosted in recent months by the power vacuum in northern Syria, where ISIL fighters have ostensibly joined the anti-Assad movement and declared tiny emirates under their control.
So far, ISIL have stuck to former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by Maliki's government, alleging discrimination and heavy-handed crackdowns on protests.
With Friday’s gains, ISIL fighters are knocking on Baghdad’s door from the west and northeast. But with its large Shia population, the capital will be a far more difficult target.
There were reports that thousands of Shia volunteers were mobilizing. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led his Mahdi Army forces in a 2007 uprising against the government, and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia both vowed to defend Shia holy sites, raising the specter of street clashes and sectarian killings.
“We hope that all the Shia groups will come together and move as one man to protect Baghdad and the other Shia areas,” Abu Mujahid, a militia leader, told The New York Times.
Separately, the government has also visibly beefed up security in Baghdad.
“They’ve put up a ring of steel, launching more mobile patrols,” said Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, in Baghdad. “This is a plan that they say will secure Baghdad completely.”
Even so, Maliki will need substantial foreign assistance to bat down ISIL, a fact he and his main allies — the U.S. and Iran — have readily accepted. Though no firm commitments have been made, the long-hostile world powers seem to be leaning towards a joint intervention on behalf of the embattled Maliki government in what figures to be a rare opportunity for cooperation.
President Barack Obama has threatened military strikes against ISIL strongholds — something Maliki has been demanding for months, according to report — a swift turnaround from his speech at West Point last week, when the president outlined a more hands-off, noninterventionist foreign policy doctrine.
In a hastily arranged press conference at the White House on Friday he ruled out sending U.S. troops back to Iraq, but said the US was considering "targeted" military actions. He added that the onus was on Iraq's leaders to figure out a more permanent political solution, build stability, and turn the corner on sectarian strife.
"Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together," he said. "We can't do it for them."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also made comments suggesting potential involvement in its neighbor's affairs. A source told Al Jazeera that Iran's elite Quds Force had already deployed 150 men to support their Shia allies in Baghdad, although CNN on Friday reported the number to be 500.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces have moved to fill the power vacuum caused by the retreating Iraqi forces — taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
The Kurds, who already control a semiautonomous, oil-rich region, seem poised to capitalize on Iraq's current chaos to bring Kirkuk under their permanent control.
The U.N. says this week's violence has claimed hundreds of lives so far, and displaced hundreds of thousands.
With wire services