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Iraqis answer cleric’s call to arms

US deploys ships; Iran offers help

– An Iraqi general said Saturday that Baghdad was secure, as hundreds of Iraqis converged on volunteer centers across the capital in response to a call by Iraq’s highest Shiite cleric to fight back against a Sunni jihadist group making gains across the north.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, speaking on behalf of the armed forces, told reporters in Baghdad that the city was “stable” and that the military was coordinating with forces in Samarra and other areas north of the capital to retake territory claimed by the insurgents.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a U.S. aircraft carrier, cruiser and destroyer into the Persian Gulf, which Pentagon spokesman said was intended to give President Barack Obama “additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq.”

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, said his country was prepared to step in to help Iraq.

“We are ready to help Iraq within the framework of international law, and if the Iraqi government and nation ask us to do so, we will consider it,” Rouhani told reporters in Tehran.

But Iran’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, said the country has “no intention of sending military forces to Iraq.”

“Instead we’ll provide consultation and guidance to Iraqi forces,” Fazli told reporters in Tehran, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency. “But if terrorists get close to our borders, we will destroy them.”

Both sides in the conflict claimed Saturday to have inflicted heavy casualties. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant said on its official Twitter account that it had executed 1,700 Shiite soldiers Friday. Meanwhile, the pro-government Iraqia satellite channel reported that Iraqi forces had killed nearly 300 “terrorists” across northern Iraq on Saturday.

An Iraqi official said Friday that the number of new recruits had reached 30,000, but that number does not approach the roughly 90,000 soldiers who he said earlier had “evaporated overnight” as ISIL advanced. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to provide the data.

In Baghdad, fallout from the stunning advance in the north was beginning to affect daily life for the city’s 7 million inhabitants.

Some food prices rose dramatically. Army troops went house-to-house searching for militants and weapons in neighborhoods close to vital government installations. The streets of the capital were quieter than usual, and military and police checkpoints made extra efforts to check cars and passenger IDs.

The price hikes were partly the result of transportation disruptions on the main road linking the capital with provinces to the north.

“I do not know how the poor people in Baghdad will manage their life in the coming days. … hunger is as dangerous as bullets,” said Yasser Abbas, a government employee from Baghdad’s sprawling eastern Sadr City district.

On Friday, Maliki addressed the nation from the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, where Iraq’s worst period of sectarian bloodshed began with the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in 2006.

He called the symbolic city – also the home town of the jihadists’ commander, Abu Bakr Baghdadi – “a launchpad” for the fight against ISIL, Reuters reported.

Maliki insisted that the country is “not sectarian” and “will fight as a nation.”