Sunday 18 February 2018

Iraqis answer cleric's call to arms

Iraqi men flash victory signs as they leave the main recruiting centre to join the Iraqi army in Baghdad. (AP)
Iraqi men flash victory signs as they leave the main recruiting centre to join the Iraqi army in Baghdad. (AP)
Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters chant slogans against the al Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (AP)

Hundreds of young Iraqi men have streamed into volunteer centres across Baghdad, answering a call by the country's senior Shiite cleric to join the fight against Sunni militants advancing in the north.

They were responding to a call by grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqis to defend their country against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which made rapid advances this week.

Volunteers from across Baghdad were ferried in buses to a base in the eastern part of the capital for training. In some centres, dozens of them climbed on to the back of army trucks, chanting Shiite slogans and hoisting assault rifles.

The massive response to the call to arms comes as sectarian tensions threaten to push the country back towards civil war in the worst crisis since US forces withdrew at the end of 2011.

Fighters from Islamic State - an al Qaida splinter group, drawing support from former Saddam Hussein-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis - have made dramatic gains in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad after overrunning Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday.

Soldiers and policemen have melted away in the face of the lightning advance, and thousands have fled to the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Today, insurgents seized the small town of Adeim in Diyala province, 60 miles north of Baghdad, after Iraqi security forces pulled out, said the head of the municipal council, Mohammed Dhifan.

Jawad al-Bolani, a former cabinet minister close to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, said a military offensive was under way to drive the insurgents from Tikrit, Saddam's home town north of Baghdad, although fighting in the area could not be confirmed.

The fast-moving rebellion has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since even before the Americans left.

Long-simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions boiled over after the US-led invasion ousted Saddam in 2003, leading to vicious fighting between the two Muslim sects. But the bloodshed ebbed in 2008 after a so-called US surge, a revolt by moderate Sunnis against al Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia ceasefire.

The latest bout of fighting, stoked by the civil war in neighboring Syria, has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.

State-run television aired a constant flow of nationalist songs, clips of soldiers marching or singing, flying aircraft, brief interviews with troops vowing to crush the militants and archive clips of the nation's top Shiite clerics.

Extensive clips of Mr al-Maliki's visit yesterday to the city of Samarra, home to a much-revered Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, were also broadcast.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government's counte-rterrorism department said the son of Saddam's vice president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was killed in an air raid by the Iraqi air force in Tikrit.

It said Ahmed al-Douri was killed with 50 other Saddam loyalists and Islamic State fighters.

Press Association

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