The battle lines for sectarian war in Iraq appeared to harden Friday as the nation’s most-revered Shiite Muslim cleric called on all Iraqis to take up arms against the al Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremists who have seized control of several Iraqi cities and towns this week.
The appeal by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a religious leader known to pull tremendous sway over Iraq’s Shiite majority, came as leaders in nearby Iran, the region’s Shiite powerhouse, began deploying elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard units to Iraq to combat the rising Sunni insurgency.
For its part, the Obama White House says it too is weighing whether any U.S. military action might help to quell the rapid unraveling of security in Iraq.
President Obama said Friday the U.S. will not send troops and stressed it is now time for the Iraqis to take full responsibility for their own security.
But Mr. Obama also said he has tasked his national security team to come up with a “range of options” for him to consider. “This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge,” he said, stressing that while the U.S. stands ready to assist in some capacity, the burden to quell the insurgency lies with the Iraqi government.
“We can’t do it for them,” the president said. “This should be a wake-up call.”
Still, administration officials reportedly are weighing multiple options, including the use of drones or manned aircraft.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested Friday that some form of U.S. military action remains on the table to counter the assault on northern Iraqi cities and towns this week by the Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Kerry told reporters in London that the group, which is known in English by both acronyms ISIL and ISIS, is a “terrorist enemy” that is known to be plotting mayhem not only inside Iraq and Syria, but also against Americans and Western interests.
He did not provide specific details of any ISIL terrorist plots targeting the United States, but asserted that the al Qaeda-inspired group “has been plotting and looking for opportunities to take on the West.”
The surge by ISIL fighters this week has prompted fresh concern in Washington that hard-fought gains during nearly a decade of U.S. occupation of the Mideast country are slipping away.
The Obama administration, facing criticism from Republicans, who argue that the White House moved too quickly in pulling all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, has acknowledged this week that the violence may now be spinning out of control.
Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq during the U.S. occupation that began in 2003.
The AP reported that the Iraqi government has asked this week for U.S. airstrikes to target terrorists, and the Obama administration is weighing whether to do so. Mr. Kerry said a decision would be made soon.