Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against
predominantly Sunni militants, carry weapons during a
parade in the streets in Baghdad's Sadr city. Photo by
An offensive by insurgents that threatens to dismember
Iraq seemed to slow after days of lightning advances as
government forces regained some territory in counter-attacks,
easing pressure on the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.
As Iraqi officials spoke of wresting back the initiative
against Sunni militants, neighbouring Shi'ite Iran held out
the prospect of working with its longtime US arch-enemy to
help restore security in Iraq.
US President Barack Obama said on Friday (local time) he was
reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to
combat the insurgency. The United States ordered an aircraft
carrier moved into the Gulf on Saturday, readying it in case
Washington decides to pursue a military option after
insurgents overran areas in the north and advanced on
Thousands responded to a call by Iraq's most influential
Shi'ite cleric to take up arms and defend the country against
the insurgency, led by the Sunni militant Islamic State in
Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In a visit to the city of Samarra, Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki vowed to rout the insurgents, whose onslaught has
put the future of Iraq as a unitary state in question and
raised the spectre of sectarian conflict.
The militant gains have alarmed Maliki's Shi'ite supporters
in both Iran and the United States, which helped bring him to
power after invading the country and toppling former Sunni
dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Oil prices have jumped over fears of ISIL disrupting exports
from OPEC member Iraq.
But having encountered little resistance in majority Sunni
areas, the militants have now come up against the army, which
clawed back some towns and territory around Samarra on
Saturday with the help of Shi'ite militia.
"We have regained the initiative and will not stop at
liberating Mosul from ISIL terrorists, but all other parts,"
said Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the
Iraqi military's commander-in-chief, pointing out areas the
army had retaken on a map with a laser pen.
Militants in control of Tikrit, 45km north of Samarra,
planted landmines and roadside bombs at the city's entrances,
apparently anticipating a counter-attack by government
forces. Residents said the militants deployed across the city
and moved anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery into
position. Families began to flee north in the direction of
Kirkuk, an oil-rich city which Kurdish forces occupied on
Thursday after the Iraqi army fled.
IRAQI ARMY COUNTER-ATTACKS
Security sources said Iraqi troops attacked an ISIL formation
in the town of al-Mutasim, 22km southeast of Samarra, driving
militants out into the surrounding desert on Saturday.
The army also reasserted control over the small town of
Ishaqi, southeast of Samarra, to secure a road that links the
city to Baghdad and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul further
Troops backed by the Shi'ite Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia helped
retake the town of Muqdadiya northeast of Baghdad, and ISIL
was dislodged from Dhuluiya after three hours of fighting
with tribesmen, local police and residents, a tribal leader
In Udhaim, 90km north of Baghdad, Asaib and police fought
militants who earlier occupied the local municipal building,
an official there told Reuters, and they directed mortar fire
at the government protection force of the Baiji oil refinery,
Masked jihadists under the black flag of ISIL aim to revive a
medieval caliphate that would span a fragmenting Iraq and
Syria, redrawing borders set by European colonial powers a
century ago and menacing neighbours like Iran and Turkey.
Obama cautioned on Friday that any U.S. intervention must be
accompanied by an Iraqi government effort to bridge divisions
between Shi'ite and Sunni communities.
The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, ordered moved into
the Gulf on Saturday, was accompanied by a guided-missile
cruiser and a guided-missile destroyer, the Pentagon said in
"The order will provide the Commander-in-Chief additional
flexibility, should military options be required to protect
American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq," the Pentagon
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Iraqi Foreign
Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Saturday and expressed support for
Iraq in its fight against insurgents, the Iraqi Foreign
Ministry said in a statement. Kerry pledged $12 million and
stressed that Iraq should assure its neighbours that the war
is not sectarian, but against the insurgents, the statement
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, asked at a televised news
conference whether Tehran could work with the United States
to tackle ISIL, said: "We can think about it if we see
America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or
"We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist
groups," added Rouhani, a relative moderate who has presided
over a thaw in Iran's long antagonistic relations with the
A senior Iranian official told Reuters earlier this week that
Tehran, which has strong leverage in Shi'ite-majority Iraq,
may be ready to cooperate with Washington against ISIL
The official said the idea of cooperating with the Americans
was being mooted within the Tehran leadership. For now,
according to Iranian media, Iran will send advisers and
weaponry, although probably not troops, to boost Baghdad.
U.S. officials said on Friday there had been no contact with
Iran over the crisis in Iraq. Asked about Rouhani's comments
on Saturday, a White House spokesman said he would have no
Any initiative would follow a clear pattern of Iranian
overtures since the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets,
which led to quiet U.S.-Iranian collaboration in the
overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and formation of a
The United States and Iran, adversaries since Iran's 1979
revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, have long accused
each other of meddling in the Gulf and beyond, and have not
cooperated on regional security issues for more than a
MALIKI HERALDS FIGHT-BACK
Militants attacked the convoy of the custodian of the holy
shrine in Samarra, while he was en route to Baghdad. Sheikh
Haider al-Yaqoobi was not harmed, but 10 of his guards were
killed, a source in Samarra hospital said.
Maliki travelled on Friday to Samarra, one of the cities
targeted - though not seized - by ISIL fighters who now
prevail in a string of Sunni cities and towns running south
"Samarra will not be the last line of defence, but a
gathering point and launchpad," he told military officers
after Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric urged people to
take up arms and defend the country against the insurgents.
"Within the coming hours, all the volunteers will arrive to
support the security forces in their war against the gangs of
ISIL. This is the beginning of the end of them," Maliki, a
Shi'ite Muslim, said in comments broadcast on Iraqi
Maliki said the cabinet had granted him unlimited powers to
confront insurgents. Last week, parliament failed to convene
for a vote on declaring a state of emergency due to a boycott
by most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers.
In Basra, Iraq's main city in the mainly Shi'ite far south,
hundreds volunteered to join the battle against ISIL, heeding
a call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who
commands unswerving loyalty from most Iraqi Shi'ites.
The volunteers, of all ages, were due to be given weapons and
sent to a security centre in Basra later on Saturday ready to
be transferred further north. "We the people of Basra obeyed
our instructions to defend our country from south to north,"
said 63-year-old Kadhem Jassim.
Iran's Rouhani said he would review any request for help
submitted by Maliki, although none had been received yet. "We
are ready to help in the framework of international
regulations and laws," he said.