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Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie Calls On Iraqis To Defend Country

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's Shiite clerical leadership Friday called on all Iraqis to defend their country from Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory, and a U.N. official expressed "extreme alarm" at reprisal killings in the offensive, citing reports of hundreds of dead and wounded.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he is weighing options for countering the insurgency, but warned Iraqi leaders that he would not take military action unless they moved to address the country's political divisions.

Fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant made fresh gains, driving government forces at least temporarily from two towns in an ethnically mixed province northeast of Baghdad. The assault threatens to embroil Iraq more deeply in a wider regional conflict feeding off the chaos caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam Hussein-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led government is struggling to form a coherent response to the crisis, traveled to the city of Samarra to meet with military commanders late Friday, according to state TV.

Militants earlier in the week overran military bases and several communities including the second-largest city of Mosul and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. Samarra, the site of a prominent Shiite shrine 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, sits between Tikrit and the capital.

A representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, told worshippers at Friday prayers that it was their civic duty to confront the threat.

"Citizens who can carry weapons and fight the terrorists in defense of their country, its people and its holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces," said Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, whose comments are thought to reflect al-Sistani's thinking.

He warned that Iraq faced "great danger," and that fighting the militants "is everybody's responsibility, and is not limited to one specific sect or group."

In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay warned of "murder of all kinds" and other war crimes in Iraq, and said the number killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, while the wounded could approach 1,000.

Pillay said her office has received reports that militants rounded up and killed Iraqi army soldiers as well as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.

Her office heard of "summary executions and extrajudicial killings" as ISIL militants overran Iraqi cities and towns this week, the statement said.

"I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies," Pillay said. "And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children."

Obama did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending American troops back into combat in Iraq.

"We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we're not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country," Obama said on the South Lawn of the White House.

Administration officials said Obama is weighing airstrikes using drones or manned aircraft. Other short-term options include an increase in surveillance and intelligence-gathering. The U.S. also is likely to increase aid to Iraq, including funding, training and both lethal and non-lethal equipment.

Al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pleaded with Washington for more than a year for additional help to combat the growing insurgency.

Neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran signaled its willingness to confront the growing threat from the militant blitz.

Former members of Tehran's powerful Revolutionary Guard have announced their readiness to fight in Iraq against the Islamic State, the official IRNA news agency reported. Iranian state TV quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying his country will do all it can to battle terrorism next door.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism," the report said Rouhani told al-Maliki by phone.

Iranian officials denied their forces were actively operating in Iraq, however.

Mansour Haghighatpour, who sits on an influential Iranian parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, told The Associated Press that Baghdad is capable of fighting the militants, but Tehran would consider other options if asked.

Iran has built close political and economic ties with postwar Iraq, and many influential Iraqi Shiites have spent time in the Islamic Republic. Iran this week halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and said it was intensifying security on its borders.

Police said Sunni militants driving machine gun-mounted pickups entered the two newly conquered Iraqi towns in Diyala province late Thursday — Jalula, 125 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Baghdad, and Sadiyah, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts there without any resistance, they said.

Jalula residents said the gunmen issued an ultimatum to the soldiers not to resist and give up their weapons in exchange for safe passage. After seizing the town, the gunmen announced on loudspeakers that they have come to rescue residents from injustice and that none would be hurt.

The gunmen later disappeared from Jalula, only to be replaced with the Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga. They raised the Kurdish flag over government buildings and transferred abandoned Iraqi military equipment back to the Kurds' self-ruled northern region, according to two police officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, and the residents declined to give their names out of fears for their safety.

The Islamic State has vowed to march on Baghdad, but the capital would be a far more difficult target with its large Shiite population. The militants would face far stronger resistance from government forces and Shiite militias.

So far, they have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are alienated by al-Maliki's government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment.

Iraq's former Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, told the AP in Istanbul that while the Islamic State was one player in the uprising, they are not the driving force.

"They are not involved in the decision-making," he said, adding that the Sunni tribes in Mosul and Anbar are "behind this Iraqi spring."

Baghdad considers al-Hashemi a fugitive after he was found guilty in absentia in terrorism-related cases — charges he dismisses as politically motivated.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia have vowed to defend Shiite holy sites, raising the specter of street clashes and sectarian killings.

Still, authorities have tightened security around the capital and residents stocked up on supplies.

Hundreds of young men volunteered for military service at a recruiting center Thursday, and more were being urged to join by cars playing Shiite religious songs that roamed Shiite neighborhoods Friday after the cleric's call.

The Islamic militants in Mosul declared they would impose Shariah law and trumpeted their success in a parade of seized armored vehicles that was captured on online video.

A fighter with a loudspeaker urged the people to join the militants "to liberate Baghdad and Jerusalem." The Islamic State's black banners adorned many of the captured vehicles. Some in the crowd shouted "God is with you" to the fighters.

The video appeared authentic and consistent with AP reporting of the events depicted.

The U.N. refugee agency reported that local authorities say 300,000 people fleeing from Mosul have sought safety in the Erbil and Duhok governorates in the Kurdistan region. UNHCR monitoring teams report many arrived with little more than what they were wearing, although some are staying with relatives and in hotels, the agency said.

Kurdish security forces filled the power vacuum caused by the retreating Iraqi forces, taking control of the ethnically mixed oil hub of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

The advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April parliamentary elections — the first since the U.S. military withdrawal — but failed to get a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

The U.N. envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, urged the Federal Court to certify the election results before the current parliament's mandate expires Saturday.

"There is a need to guarantee the continuity of the parliament, representing all Iraqis, is in place and will continue to address urgent decisions of national importance," Mladenov said.

Iraq's government began blocking access to websites like Facebook and Twitter, according to Renesys, a New Hampshire-based Internet analysis firm. The outages, reported Thursday and Friday, appeared to coincide with government efforts to disrupt the militants' offensive and mirrored other past efforts by Middle East countries to block Internet access.

Internet access routed through Kurdistan into neighboring Turkey appeared to continue functioning, said Jim Cowie, the head of research and development at Renesys. Iraq also accesses the Internet through providers in Jordan and via submarine cables.

"There can always be battle damage but in this particular case it's government directed," Cowie told the AP.


Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington, John Heilprin in Geneva, Jon Gambrell in Cairo, Edith Lederer at the United Nations, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Desmond Butler in Istanbul and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.


Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at .

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The New York Times reports that Baghdad residents are preparing for insurgents to descend on the city, though Iraq's military says they're slowed the rebels' advance:

While some Baghdad residents scrambled to leave, hoarded food or rushed to join auxiliary militias to defend the city, the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and their allies halted their advance within a two-hour drive to the north, and there was no indication that they were seeking to push into Baghdad proper.

Read more at the Times.

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Today 12:38 PM EDT
U.S. Moves Aircraft Carrier
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From the AP:

Hundreds of young Iraqi men gripped by religious and nationalistic fervor streamed into volunteer centers Saturday across Baghdad, answering a call by the country's top Shiite cleric to join the fight against Sunni militants advancing in the north.

Dozens climbed into the back of army trucks, chanting Shiite slogans and hoisting assault rifles, pledging to join the nation's beleaguered security forces to battle the Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has launched a lightning advance across the country.

Read more here.

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From Reuters:

A Sunni Islamist offensive threatening to dismember Iraq seemed to slow on Saturday after days of lightning advances as government forces reported regaining territory in counter-attacks, easing pressure on Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government.

As Iraqi officials spoke of wresting back the initiative against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant insurgents (ISIL), neighboring Shi'ite Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.

Read more here.

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06/13/2014 3:34 PM EDT
'Early 2006 Again'

Martin Chulov writes from Iraq for the Guardian that this week's fighting has once again exposed the divisions among the country's different groups, as well as the divisive policies of its political leader Nuri al-Maliki.

Iraq has suddenly found itself in early 2006 again, in a week that has seen Sunni insurgents once more face off with Shia militias, a major city looted as an army stands by, and the two shrines whose destruction sparked the sectarian war again endangered. This, though, is a crisis like no other for Iraq, eclipsing even the blood-soaked and hopeless war years that pitched sects against each other and whittled out towns and cities. There is no occupying army to hold the country together this time. After the stunning capitulation at the hands of Sunni insurgents this week, there is barely a military left at all.

Go here to read the full report.

-- Eline Gordts

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This image posted on a militant news Twitter account on Thursday, June 12, 2014 shows militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant removing part of the soil barrier on the Iraq-Syria borders and moving through it. (AP Photo/albaraka_news)

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Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Friday that fighters of ISIS allegedly executed at least 15 civilians in northern Syria.

The executions reportedly took place in the village of al-Taliliya, near Ras al-‘Ayn, on May 29.

“While everyone is focused on ISIS’s advances in Iraq, they’re also committing atrocities in Syria, including gunning down civilians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “ISIS flouts the law, executing civilians at will, while Russia and China paralyze UN Security Council action.”

Read the full announcement here.

-- Eline Gordts

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The Pentagon said on Friday it cannot confirm reports that members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard are fighting in Iraq. "I've seen the press reporting on that ... but I have nothing to confirm that there are Iranian special forces inside Iraq," spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said, according to Reuters.

Reports emerged on Thursday that Iranian special forces were helping Baghdad in fighting Islamist insurgents that have captures several cities in Iraq this week.

-- Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 1:21 PM EDT
UN Warns Of War Crimes

The United Nation warned on Friday war crimes may have possible been committed in Iraq.

From the Associated Press:

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned of "murder of all kinds" and other war crimes in the fast-deteriorating Iraqi war zone.

In a first estimate of the number of killed and wounded in the area, her office said the number of killed may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded could approach 1,000.

Pillay also shed some light on the brutalities occurring in Iraq, saying her office had received reports of militants rounding up and killing Iraqi army soldiers and 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.

Her office said it has also learned of summary executions, rape, extrajudicial and reprisal killings, and about civilians being shelled as fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant overran a succession of major cities earlier in the week.

Deeply disturbing, she said, are reports that the fighters, including prisoners they had released from jails in Mosul and provided with arms, have been actively seeking out and sometimes killing soldiers, police and others. She said victims also included civilians, who the fighters believe are associated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Pillay warned those fighting to abide by international law, which requires human treatment of members of armed forces who have laid down their arms. She also stressed that "murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture constitute war crimes."

"I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies," Pillay said.

"And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children," she said. "There will be particular scrutiny of the conduct of ISIL, given their well-documented record of committing grave international crimes in Syria."

Read more here.

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From Reuters:

(Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Friday he will take several days to review options for how the United States can help Iraq deal with a militant insurgency, saying any action would need significant involvement by Iraq itself.

"The United States is not simply going involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together," Obama said, making it clear that he would not send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.

"We are not going to be able to do it for them," he added.

The threat by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Iraq poses a danger to the people of Iraq and also, potentially Americans, Obama told reporters at the White House.

"This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland," Obama said.

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The United Nations' top human rights official expressed "extreme alarm" over reports of militants carrying out summary executions and civilians being targeted by both sides fighting in Iraq.

"The full extent of civilian casualties is not yet known, but reports suggest the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement on Thursday.

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A senior Iranian official told Reuters that Iran is discussing whether to work together with the Obama administration to help Baghdad fight insurgents that have taken over part of Iraq this week.

"We can work with Americans to end the insurgency in the Middle East," the official said, according to the news service. "We are very influential in Iraq, Syria and many other countries."

Read the full story here.

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06/13/2014 11:39 AM EDT
Pentagon Moves Aircraft Carrier
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06/13/2014 11:22 AM EDT
What Airstrikes May Accomplish

Several U.S. policymakers have expressed their support in recent days for airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq. Yet as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations explains, few of those politicians actually agree on what such airstrikes will accomplish.

Take a look at Zenko's summary of some of those assertions.

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06/13/2014 10:41 AM EDT
Helicopters Bomb Mosque In Tirkit

Sources told Reuters that Iraqi army helicopters fired rockets on a mosque in the city of Tikrit on Friday. It was still unclear if there were casualties, the news service added.

Islamist militants took over the northern city on Thursday.

-- Eline Gordts

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The daughter of Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein told London-based newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi that she is "very happy" about the takeover of Iraqi cities by Sunni militants. Interviewed in Arabic, Raghad Saddam Hussein credited her father's Baath party with aiding ISIS and tribal factions oust Iraqi government forces from northern towns.

-- Charlotte Alfred

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06/13/2014 9:53 AM EDT
Thousands Of Volunteers Sign Up

Thousands of volunteers of all ages have signed up to join the Iraqi army since ISIS militants captured several cities in the war-torn country, Agence France Press reports. The number of recruits is expected to rise over the weekend after popular Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged people to defend their country on Friday.

"If I stayed home and others stayed home, who will go out to defend our honor?" 23-year-old Kamel told AFP in Baghdad. "I heard that volunteering is open to all ages, so I decided to come and participate in the war against ISIS," Kamel's father-in-law, Hamed Kamel Hussein, added.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 9:44 AM EDT
Social Media Platforms Blocked

Martin Chulov of the Guardian reports that Google and YouTube are down in Iraq.

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In a fascinating piece published in the New York Times this morning, Tim Arango reports that some Iraqis appear less fearful of the violence perpetrated by fighters belonging to ISIS than of government airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling.

Arango writes:

The events over the last several days in Mosul — which is majority Sunni, although it has a sizable population of Kurds and some Shiites, too — highlight what critics have said for years: that Sunnis see the army not as a national force but as the protector of the Shiite population. A Western diplomat, in a recent interview, said that in places such as Mosul and Anbar Province, the security forces are regarded as “a foreign force in their own country.”

But residents of Mosul say that so far the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has handled the local population with a light touch. Some residents, hardened by their hatred of the army, spoke of the insurgents almost as if they were a liberating army. The militants, residents said, greet people at checkpoints and ask citizens if they are carrying a weapon, and if the answer is no, they let them on their way.

Read the full report here.

-- Eline Gordts

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Iraqi refugees from Mosul at Khazir refugee camp outside Erbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

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06/13/2014 8:53 AM EDT
PHOTO: Uniforms In Mosul

Sophia Jones reports from Erbil;

Just 500 meters from what is now an ISIS checkpoint outside of the captured city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Iraqi army and police uniforms are strewn on the ground. Their military vehicles are left empty by the side of the road, their doors still open. According to Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iraqi forces from Mosul fled to the Kurdish checkpoint outside of Erbil when they heard ISIS was coming, stripped, changed into civilian clothing, and fled.

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U.S. military planners told CNN that airstrikes against ISIS militants that have captured several Iraqi cities in recent days may not be effective.

CNN details:

Among other complications, U.S. officials don't have good intelligence about where militants are, and even if they did, the militants don't have the kinds of targets -- command and control centers, air defense sites, military bases -- that lend themselves to aerial attacks, the officials said.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 8:34 AM EDT
Sophia Jones Reports From Erbil

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06/13/2014 7:59 AM EDT
Clashes Reported In Diyala
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06/13/2014 7:57 AM EDT
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Reuters reports that Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called on his followers to take up arms and defend the country.

The message was delivered by al-Sistani's representative, Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, during Friday prayers in the city of Kerbala.

--Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 7:28 AM EDT
UN: Refugee Population Soars

From the Associated Press:

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. refugee agency says Iraq's refugee population has increased by almost 800,000 this year as the government struggles against rebels and Islamic militants.

The agency says 300,000 people fled for safety this week in Erbil and Duhok as Islamic militants seize control of large areas in northern Iraq.

Agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters Friday in Geneva that many of the refugees are arriving with little more than the clothes they wear and have no money and nowhere to go.

Last week, the agency reported that nearly 480,000 people had been driven from their homes by fighting since January between government forces and rebels in western Iraq's Anbar province.

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