BAGHDAD – 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, and he warned Iraqi leaders that he would not take military action unless they moved to address the country's political divisions.
Fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant made fresh gains, driving government forces at least temporarily from two towns in an ethnically mixed province northeast of Baghdad. The assault 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 is drawing support from former Saddam Hussein-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the U.S. withdrawal in 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, whose Shiite-led government is struggling to form a coherent response to the crisis, traveled to the city of Samarra to meet with military commanders late Friday, according to state TV.
Militants overran military bases and several communities this week, including Mosul, the second-largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
Samarra, the site of a prominent Shiite shrine 60 miles north of Baghdad, sits between Tikrit and the capital.
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, whose comments are thought to reflect al-Sistani's thinking.
He warned that Iraq faced “great danger” and said 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 and said the number killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, while the wounded could approach 1,000.
U.S. administration officials said Obama is weighing airstrikes using drones or manned aircraft. Other short-term options include an increase in surveillance and intelligence-gathering. The U.S. also is likely to increase aid to Iraq, including funding, training and lethal and nonlethal equipment.
While Obama did not specify what options he was considering, 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 on the South Lawn of the White House.
Al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pleaded with Washington for more than a year for additional help to combat the growing insurgency.
Neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran signaled its willingness to confront the growing militant threat.
Former members of Tehran's powerful Revolutionary Guard have announced their readiness to fight in Iraq against the Islamic State, the official IRNA news agency reported. Iranian state TV quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying his country will do all it can to battle terrorism next door.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism,” the report said Rouhani told al-Maliki by phone.
Iran has built close political and economic ties with postwar Iraq, and many influential Iraqi Shiites have spent time in Iran. The country this week halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and said it was intensifying security on its borders.