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Iraqis Flock To Volunteer To Fight Insurgents

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of Shiites from Baghdad and across southern Iraq answered an urgent call to arms Saturday, joining security forces to fight the Islamic militants who have captured large swaths of territory north of the capital and now imperil a city with a much-revered religious shrine.

The mobilization, urged by the nation's top Shiite cleric, took on a sectarian dimension that threatened to intensify Sunni-Shiite strife in a nation already ripped by religious fervor after the militants' battlefield successes.

In Baghdad, fallout from the stunning advance in the north was beginning to affect daily life for the city's 7 million inhabitants.

Some food prices rose dramatically. Army troops went house-to-house searching for militants and weapons in neighborhoods close to vital government installations. The streets of the capital were quieter than usual, and military and police checkpoints made extra efforts to check cars and passenger IDs.

The price hikes were partly the result of transportation disruptions on the main road linking the capital with provinces to the north, but they might also be a telltale sign of a nervous city.

"We were not prepared for this sudden spike in the prices of foodstuff, vegetables and fuel," said Yasser Abbas, a government employee from Baghdad's sprawling eastern Sadr City district.

"I do not know how the poor people in Baghdad will manage their life in the coming days. God be with them until this crisis is over because hunger is as dangerous as bullets."

In the meantime, dozens of men climbed into the back of army trucks at volunteer centers, chanting Shiite religious slogans, hoisting assault rifles and pledging to join the nation's beleaguered security forces to battle the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

"By God's will, we will be victorious." said one volunteer, Ali Saleh Aziz. "We will not be stopped by the ISIL or any other terrorists."

The volunteers were first taken to an assembly center in eastern Baghdad, where they were handed military uniforms, and later went to Taji, home of Iraq's largest military base north of Baghdad, to undergo basic training. State-run television aired footage of the volunteers being drilled, still in their civilian clothes.

The mobilization unfolded against a backdrop of religious and nationalist fervor. State-run television aired a constant flow of nationalist songs, clips of soldiers marching or singing, as well as interviews with troops vowing to crush the militants. Other broadcasts included archival clips of the nation's top Shiite clerics and aerial shots of Shiite shrines.

Shiite cleric and political leader Ammar al-Hakim was shown on television networks donning camouflaged military fatigues as he spoke to volunteers from his party, although he still wore his clerical black turban that designates him as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite widely resented by Sunnis for his perceived sectarian policies, denied the call by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was directed against Sunnis, saying it was in fact meant to protect the country and its holy shrines.

"Talk of Sunnis and Shiites must be dropped," he said, calling for the unity of all Iraqis.

Many volunteers, however, said they had enlisted to protect their faith and shrines at risk in the city of Samarra north of Baghdad and elsewhere. The militants have threatened to march all the way south to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, home to two of the most revered Shiite shrines.

Al-Maliki himself appeared to give the standoff with ISIL a sectarian color, paying a surprise visit to Samarra on Friday and appearing on state-run television while praying there. The shrine was badly damaged in a bombing blamed on Sunni extremists in 2006. That attack sparked a wave of bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites that lasted two years. The bloodshed ebbed in 2008 after the U.S. troop surge, a revolt by moderate Sunnis against al-Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia cease-fire.

The footage seemed clearly aimed at rehabilitating his reputation in the eyes of Shiites as a protector of the faith and its followers. He also declared that Samarra would be the assembly point for the march north to drive out the militants, another apparent religious incentive to Shiites.

On Saturday evening, a dozen armed militiamen got off a bus on a main central Baghdad road and chanted Shiite slogans before driving away.

Fighters from the 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-ruling Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

On Saturday, insurgents seized the small town of Adeim in Diyala province after Iraqi security forces pulled out, said the head of the municipal council, Mohammed Dhifan. Adeim is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. There was no official confirmation of the loss of the town.

Jawad al-Bolani, a lawmaker and former Cabinet minister close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said a military offensive was underway Saturday to drive the insurgents from Tikrit, Saddam's hometown north of Baghdad, although fighting in the area could not be confirmed.

Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military's commander in chief, said Iraq's armed forces have "regained the initiative" in the north and northeast, blunting ISIL advances and regaining control of some localities.

As President Barack Obama considers possible military options for Iraq, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to move from the northern Arabian Sea into the Persian Gulf. The carrier was to be accompanied by two guided-missile ships.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday that his Shiite nation stands ready to help Iraq if asked, adding that it has "no option but to confront terrorism."

He said Iran would "study if there is a demand for help from Iraq" but that no specific request for assistance had been made.

Entry of Iranian forces into Iraq "has not been raised so far," and "it's unlikely that such conditions will emerge," he added.

Iran has built close political and economic ties with Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam's Sunni-led regime.

___

Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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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
UNHCR Warns
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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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