Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric has called on his followers to join the fight against Sunni-led militants who have seized towns across the country, amid fears that a sectarian conflict is all but inevitable.
A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued the call to arms during Friday prayers as the fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) extended their control of towns and cities in the north and east of Iraq, and threatened to move further south and onto the capital, Baghdad.
"People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country … should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal," said Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai.
The call to arms raises further the prospect that Iraq is again on the verge of a full-blown sectarian war, according to Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who said that Sistani is normally seen as "apolitical."
"The fact that someone like that is saying this — we can only imagine what the Khomeinists are saying in Iran." President Hassan Rouhani of Iran called the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday promising that Iran would "not allow the supporters of terrorists to disrupt security and stability of Iraq."
The United Nations said on Friday that hundreds of people had been killed, and women raped, as the Islamist militants carried out summary executions in Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which they seized earlier this week.
Thousands of Shiite fighters made their way to the central Iraqi city of Samarra, to defend two shrines that Sunni militants blew up eight years ago, an attack that led to a sectarian conflict that almost tore the country in two. Convoys of fighters were left Baghdad early in the morning to defend the shrines, and may now have reached the city, which is in the hands of the Sunni militants.
There were reports out of Iraq today that social media had been blocked, as the Iraqi government believes Facebook and other sites have been used by ISIS militants to organize the uprising.
There were reports out of Iraq today that social media had been blocked, as the Iraqi government believes Facebook and other sites have been used by ISIS militants to organize the uprising. This afternoon Twitter said "We’re investigating their reports and we hope service will be restored quickly."