Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr
stand during military-style training in Najaf.
Iraqi forces are massing north of Baghdad, aiming to
strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital
prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen
Iraq's senior Shi'ite religious cleric issued a call for
unity, saying Shi'ites and Sunnis should rally behind the
authorities to prevent the Sunni militant Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant from destroying the country.
Already, ISIL has started to enact its puritanical vision of
Islam in Mosul, which it captured 10 days ago as it swept
across northern Iraq. Mosul residents said ISIL members had
destroyed symbols of Iraq's rich heritage, razing statues of
cultural icons and the tomb of a Mediaeval philosopher.
President Barack Obama offered on Thursday (local time) up to
300 American special forces advisers to help the Iraqi
government recapture territory across northern and western
Iraq that ISIL and other Sunni armed groups have seized.
But he held off granting a request for air strikes to protect
the government and renewed a call for Iraq's long-serving
Shi'ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to do more to overcome
sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the
In office since 2006, Maliki has disappointed Washington by
alienating Sunnis. Obama has called for a more inclusive
government in Baghdad, although he has stopped short of
saying Maliki should be replaced. There has been speculation
Maliki may also have lost the confidence of allies in Iran.
Tehran and Washington have both spoken of cooperating with
each other after decades of mutual hostility to prevent
anti-Western, anti-Shi'ite zealots controlling swathes of
In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 100 km (60
miles) north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the
battle with the ISIL, the provincial governor, a rare Sunni
supporter of Maliki, told cheering troops they would now
force ISIL and its allies back.
A source close to Maliki told Reuters that the government
planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which
saw ISIL seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of
Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the
Sunni-populated Tigris valley toward Baghdad as the
U.S.-trained army crumbled.
Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit
was overrun last week, was shown on television on Friday
telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: "Today we
are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh.
"These troops will not stop," he added, saying government
forces around Samarra numbered more than 50,000.
This week, the militants' lightning pace has slowed in the
area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to
Shi'ites fearful of ISIL, which views them as heretics to be
wiped out. Samarra has a major Shi'ite shrine.
The participation of Shi'ite militias and tens of thousands
of new Shi'ite army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military
to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week
allowed ISIL to carve out territory where it aims to found an
Islamic caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.
"The strategy has been for the last few days to have a new
defence line to stop the advance of ISIL," a close ally of
Maliki told Reuters. "We succeeded in blunting the advance
and now are trying to get back areas unnecessarily lost."
Fighting continues in pockets. Government forces appeared to
be still holding out in the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, the
country's largest, 100 km north of Samarra, residents said.
At Duluiya, between Samarra and Baghdad, residents said a
helicopter strafed and rocketed a number of houses in the
early morning, killing a woman. Police said they had been
told by the military that the pilot had been given the wrong
Fighting flared in Muqdadiya in northeastern Diyala province,
where security forces attacked a swathe of orchards dominated
by Sunni militants, and 1,000 civilians fled north for
safety, according to a security source. State television
accused the extremists of displacing the Sunnis as a
propaganda tool to embarrass the state.
CALL FOR UNITY
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected Shi'ite
cleric in Iraq, pleaded for stability and for Iraqis to stop
their country from falling into the abyss.
In a speech read by an aide, the reclusive octogenarian, who
rarely leaves home, urged Sunnis and Shiites to stand
together against ISIL and called on the country's politicians
to soon convene the newly-elected parliament so the process
of forming the government could begin.
Many Iraqis fear the political class will postpone the
government formation as long as possible to take advantage of
the current chaos. Sistani reemphasised a call made a week
ago for civilians to volunteer and fight ISIL through the
Iraqi security forces.
He described his message as a call to arms for all Iraqis,
not just his sect. His appeal was widely seen as giving a
boost to a government and armed forces that had been deeply
shaken in its war with Sunni armed groups, dominated by ISIL.
"If fighting and dislodging them is not done today, all will
feel sorry tomorrow," Sistani said.
In Mosul, where ISIL stunned Iraq by seizing the north's
biggest city, the militant group, which had sought alliances
with other armed Sunni factions, has started to impose its
strict interpretation of Islam.
Witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ISIL has
destroyed a statue of Othman al-Mousuli, a 19th Century Iraqi
musician and composer, and the statue of Abu Tammam, a
Mediaeval Arab poet.
The group has also desecrated the tomb of Ibn al-Athir, an
Arab philosopher who travelled with the army of warrior
sultan Salahuddin in the 12th century, they said. Under
ISIL's interpretation of Islam, tomb shrines are a form of
During the U.S. occupation from 2003-2011, ISIL, then known
as the Iraq branch of al Qaeda, alienated many Sunnis with
its strict and violent interpretation of Islam, leading
tribesmen to join forces with U.S. troops and the Baghdad
government. But this time around, Sunni tribes are so angry
with Maliki that many have joined the revolt alongside ISIL.
Obama has ruled out sending ground troops back to Iraq, two
and half years after he withdrew them.
Announcing the despatch of advisers, the president said he
was prepared to take "targeted" military action later if
deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the
prospect of air strikes to fend off the insurgency.
Obama also delivered a stern message to Maliki on the need to
take urgent steps to heal Iraq's sectarian rift, something
U.S. officials say the Shi'ite leader has failed to do and
which ISIL has exploited to win broader support among the
"We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by
sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the
kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in
Iraq," Obama told reporters. "Ultimately, this is something
that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis."
The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up
of special forces and will staff joint operations centres for
intelligence sharing and planning, U.S. officials said.
Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down,
and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with
While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying "it's
not our job to choose Iraq's leaders", he avoided any
expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council
Friday air strikes "might have little lasting effect or even
be counter-productive if there is no movement towards