Iraq militants seize two more towns
Militants who seized large areas of Iraq's Sunni heartland with lightning advances this week have pushed into an ethnically mixed province and captured two towns north east of Baghdad, officials said.
The fresh gains by insurgents, spearheaded by fighters from the al Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, come after the militants captured the country's second-largest city of Mosul and Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, as well as military and police bases.
The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011.
It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones, as prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government struggles to form a coherent response.
The assault also threatens to embroil Iraq more deeply in a wider regional conflict, already feeding off the chaos caused by the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
In Iran, the official IRNA news agency reported that former members of Tehran's powerful Revolutionary Guard had announced their readiness to fight in Iraq against the Islamic State, while Iranian state TV quoted president Hassan Rouhani as saying his country will do all it can to fight terrorism next door.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism," the Iranian report said Mr Rouhani told Mr al-Maliki by phone.
Tehran has built close political and economic ties with post-war Iraq, and many influential Iraqi Shiites have lived for stretches of time in the Islamic Republic. Iran earlier this week halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and said it was intensifying security measures along its borders.
Police officials said militants had entered the two towns in Diyala province - Jalula, 80 miles north east of Baghdad, and Sadiyah, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts without any resistance, they said.
Residents reached in Jalula said the gunmen issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi soldiers not to resist and give up their weapons in exchange for safe passage out of the city. After seizing the city, the gunmen announced through loudspeakers that they had come to rescue residents from injustice and that none would be hurt.
The Islamic State has vowed to march on Baghdad, but with its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far more difficult target.
So far, the militants have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by Mr al-Maliki's government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia vowed to defend Shiite holy sites, raising the spectre of street clashes and sectarian killings.
Baghdad authorities have tightened security around the capital and residents are stocking up on essentials. Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting centre in Baghdad after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.
Trumpeting their victory, the Islamic militants also declared they would impose shariah law in Mosul, which they captured on Tuesday, and other areas they seized.
A video posted online showed Islamic State fighters holding a parade in a Mosul neighborhood, with many of the gunmen cruising in armoured vehicles seized from Iraqi forces.
A fighter using a loudspeaker urged the people to join the militant group "to liberate Baghdad and Jerusalem". The Islamic State's black banners adorned many of the captured vehicles.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces have moved to fill the power vacuum caused by the retreating Iraqi forces - taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
A representative for Iraq's top Shiite cleric today called on Iraqis to defend their country, saying those who are able should join the security forces to battle the militants.
Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie made the comments during Friday prayers. He represents grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq.
Mr al-Karbalaie said it is "a duty" for citizens to defend against "the dangers threatening Iraq".