BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq’s Shiite clerical leadership Friday called on all Iraqis to defend their country from Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory, and a U.N. official expressed “extreme alarm” at reprisal killings in the offensive, citing reports of hundreds of dead and wounded.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he is weighing options for countering the insurgency, but warned Iraqi leaders that he would not take military action unless they moved to address the country’s political troubles.
Fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant made fresh gains, capturing two towns in an ethnically mixed province northeast of Baghdad. The ISIL assault also threatens to embroil Iraq more deeply in a wider regional conflict feeding off the chaos caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011. It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government is struggling to form a coherent response after militants overran the country’s second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases - often after meeting little resistance from state security forces.
A representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, told worshippers at Friday prayers that it was their civic duty to confront the threat.
“Citizens who can carry weapons and fight the terrorists in defense of their country, its people and its holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces,” said Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a cleric whose comments are thought to reflect al-Sistani’s thinking.
He warned that Iraq faced “great danger” and that the responsibility of fighting the militants “is everybody’s responsibility, and is not limited to one specific sect or group.”
In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay warned of “murder of all kinds” and other war crimes in Iraq, where her office says the number of those killed in recent days may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded could approach 1,000.
Pillay said her office has received reports that militants rounded up and killed Iraqi army soldiers as well as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.
Her office is hearing of “summary executions and extrajudicial killings” as ISIL militants overran Iraqi cities and towns this week, the statement said.
“I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies,” Pillay said in a statement. “And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children.”
Obama did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending American troops back into combat in Iraq.
“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, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we’re not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country,” Obama said from the South Lawn of the White House.
Neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran signaled its willingness to confront the growing threat from the militant blitz.