Iraqi army claims to have 'regained the initiative'
Iraq's army hit back against the Sunni jihadists and their allies that have swept through large parts of the country, establishing a new sectarian front line in the civil war.
The army, or what is left of it after the surrender and defection of thousands of its men in the face of the rebels' advance last week, has been bolstered by the recruitment of Shia men from Baghdad and elsewhere to local supporting militias.
Hundreds if not thousands of Iranian troops have also been sent in to support the Iraqi government forces, according to numerous reports. Their defences are said to have been marshalled in person by Qassim al-Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds force, the man often described as the Middle East's most important strategist.
The army claimed to have retaken ground north of Baghdad, including the towns of Mutasim and Ishaqi, near the key city of Samarra, and two other nearby towns. Samarra is home to a major shrine that was bombed by suspected Sunni militants in February 2006.
One of the main goals of Iranian foreign policy in recent years, including in neighbouring Syria, has been to portray itself as the only defender of the Shia faith from Sunni militancy by protecting the faith's shrines, which hardline jihadists pledge to destroy as idolatrous.
The senior Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also called on his followers to rally to the defence of Baghdad, leading to parades of arms-toting volunteers in the streets at the weekend.
Lt Gen Qassem Atta, the Iraqi government's security spokesman, said that the army had "regained the initiative" and killed 279 militants, without explaining how he arrived at that figure.
The photos of scores, perhaps hundreds of Shia prisoners being massacred by their jihadist captors demonstrated the anti-Shia mania of the rebels. Even without the photographs, whose veracity some have challenged, Iraqi troops found evidence of killings, including the burned bodies of 12 policemen when they retook Ishaqi.
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is at the forefront of the advance, has said that the rebels will next seize Baghdad before moving on the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf to destroy their shrines.
However, it is not clear that they think they can really wage a serious war against Shia-majority areas, and may prefer to consolidate their control over their new Sunni "caliphate" in western Iraq and eastern Syria.
Nor is it clear how intent the authorities are on regaining the lost ground, though they launched bombing raids on Sunni areas seized by the militants.
In more ethnically mixed areas, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki may yet be able to call on some Sunnis with historic grievances against ISIS and its estranged parent organisation, al-Qa'ida. (© Daily Telegraph, London)