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.
Mr. Kerry said the administration has not yet decided whether U.S. military intervention will help beat back the ISIL, according to a report by The Associated Press.
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.
"Iraq is a country we've had a very direct relationship with, very direct investment and engagement with, not to mention the lives of our soldiers who were lost there, providing this opportunity to them," Mr. Kerry told reporters at the end of a conference in London on combating sexual violence in conflict zones. "And I don't think anybody in the region, or in this administration, believes it is in the interest of the United States to turn our backs on that."
The spread of ISIL violence, meanwhile, has triggered fears of a return of the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that tore through Iraq during the middle years of the U.S. occupation.
Moktada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite Iraqi cleric whose followers were accused of some of the most horrific atrocities inflicted on Sunnis during the 2006-2007 war, called Wednesday for the creation of a special forces outfit to defend religious sites in Iraq.
His calls were followed Friday by an even more senior Shiite cleric in Iraq. In a rare intervention, the ayatollah said in a message at Friday prayers in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala that people should unite to fight back against ISIL, the Daily Star Newspaper in Beirut said.
The comments came a day after the president and foreign minister of Shiite-dominated Iran, which shares a long border with Iraq to the east and north, both vowed to help the government of Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the fight against ISIL.
On Friday, Iranian security officials said the Islamic Republic had begun deploying Revolutionary Guard units to Iraq, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Obama administration appeared to be caught off guard by the Iranian comment about intervening on Thursday.
Asked whether the administration would support an incursion of Iranian troops into Iraq, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: "I don't have any analysis from our team at this point in terms of what specific constructive role they could play."
"These comments and these reports are new," Ms. Psaki said.
Pressed more broadly on whether she believed the U.S. and Iran could forge a common approach toward supporting the government of Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Ms. Psaki said she was "just not going to get ahead of where things stand right now."
"I think the fact is we've been out there, obviously, long supporting the Iraqi government," Ms. Psaki said. "You know where the Iranians stand."
On Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby also appeared to have limited information on Iran's presence inside Iraq. "I don't have anything to confirm Iranian special forces in Iraq," he said.
Pushed on what role Iran should play amid the increasingly unstable scenario, Adm. Kirby added: "I'm not going to write an action plan for the [Iranian] government to play in the region."
• Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.
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