Senior Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. (AFP)
Baghdad, June 13: The senior Shia cleric in Iraq issued an urgent call to arms today, telling all able-bodied Iraqis to help the government fight Sunni militants who have seized broad stretches of Iraqi territory, in a sign of the growing desperation of the country’s Shias.
In a statement during Friday prayers, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shia cleric in Iraq, 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.” Ayatollah Sistani has enormous stature among Shias, but it also respected by Sunnis and other groups because in the darkest days of the sectarian fighting in 2006 he refrained from inflammatory language and repeatedly reached out to Sunnis, Kurds, the country’s Christians and other minorities.
But the ayatollah’s plea, while directed at all Iraqis, would most likely be heeded by Shias, sharply increasing the likelihood of Iraq sliding into open sectarian warfare.
The representative of Ayatollah Sistani, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaie, speaking in Karbala, one of Iraq’s holiest cities for Shias, said the numbers of fighters and volunteers “must fill the gaps within the security forces,” but he cautioned they should not do more that, stopping short of calling for a general armed response to the rebellion led by the Sunni jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
He emphasised that all Iraqis, not only Shias should join the fight, underscoring that everyone needed to pull together or the country could fall into sectarian warfare.
However, it seemed unlikely that many Sunnis would be moved to do so, especially in an atmosphere of deepening distrust between the sects. And many Sunnis feel squeezed as well because they have little sympathy for the extremist militants from ISIS.
The call came as the militants had fanned out to the east, at least temporarily seizing two towns near the Iranian border, Saadiyah and Jalawla.
But, several hours after the capture of the towns, security officials in Baghdad said that government troops, backed by Kurdish forces, had counterattacked, forcing the insurgents to withdraw in a rare victory.
The capture of the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla came a day after Kurdish forces further north seized on the accelerating rout of government troops to take over the oil city of Kirkuk, long contested between Iraqi Kurds and the country’s Arab leaders in Baghdad.
The Kurds control a semiautonomous region and have long eyed independence. The Kurdish moves yesterday presented Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki with a twin challenge from Kurds and from Sunni militants to restore Iraq’s cohesion and his government’s authority in face of the apparent disintegration of the American-armed Iraqi Army.