Iraq’s most senior Shia Muslim cleric urged followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, escalating a conflict that threatens civil war and a possible break-up of the country.
In a rare intervention at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the highest religious authority for Shia in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against a lightning advance by militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Fighters under the black flag of ISIL are sweeping south towards the capital Baghdad in a campaign to recreate a mediaeval caliphate carved out of fragmenting Iraq and Syria that has turned into a widespread rebellion against Maliki.
“People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defence of their country … should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal,” said Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, delivering Sistani’s message.
Those killed fighting ISIL militants would be martyrs, he said as the faithful chanted in acknowledgement.
US President Barack Obama threatened military strikes against ISIL on Thursday, highlighting the gravity of the group’s threat to redraw borders in an oil-rich region which is sending shockwaves through the Middle East.
Amidst the spreading chaos, Iraqi Kurdish forces seized control of Kirkuk, an oil hub just outside their autonomous enclave that they have long seen as their historical capital, three days after ISIL fighters captured the major city of Mosul.
There are now concerns that sectarian and tribal conflict might dismember Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish entities. The atmosphere in Baghdad was tense on Friday, the streets were empty, residents were stock-piling food and arming themselves.
Obama said military action alone was no panacea against ISIL and alluded to long-standing Western complaints that Maliki has done little to heal sectarian rifts that have left many of Iraq’s minority Sunnis, cut out of power since Saddam Hussein’s demise, aggrieved and vengeful – a mood exploited by ISIL.
“Prime Minister Maliki and all of Iraqi leaders need to do more to put sectarian differences aside,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a news conference in London on Friday.
The ISIL advance has been joined by former Baathist officers who were loyal to Saddam as well as disaffected armed groups and tribes who want to oust Maliki.