BAGHDAD — The specter of sectarian war and partition of Iraq grew Friday as the country’s top Shi’ite cleric implored his followers to take up arms against an insurgent army of marauding Sunni extremist militants who have captured broad stretches of northern territory this week in a sweep toward Baghdad.
The exhortation by the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, came as President Obama told the Iraqis they need to resolve the crisis themselves and vowed not to redeploy US forces in Iraq, a country where nearly 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives and the United States spent more than $1 trillion in an eight-year war that Obama had repeatedly said was history when the last troops left in 2011. While Obama said he would offer some help, it would not include troops, and he asserted that “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.”
Heeding the call to arms by Sistani, Shi’ite volunteers rushed to the front lines, reinforcing defenses of the holy city of Samarra 70 miles north of Baghdad, and helping thwart attacks by Sunni fighters of the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in some smaller cities to the east. The confrontations suggested Shi’ites and Sunnis would once again engage in open conflict for control of Iraq, as they did during the height of the US-led occupation that ousted Saddam Hussein.
That struggle between the sects has also helped shape the civil war in neighboring Syria and threatened to further destabilize the Middle East.
While it was unclear from Obama’s remarks what he might be prepared to do militarily to help the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, administration officials said the options included airstrikes by warplanes or drones, improved intelligence sharing, and deploying small numbers of Special Forces.
The United States has considerable military power deployed in the region, with 35,000 troops in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and neighboring gulf nations.
In addition, the United States has an array of ships there, as well as the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush with an accompanying Navy cruiser in the northern Arabian Sea. Two Navy destroyers from the Bush strike group have moved into the Persian Gulf, a Defense Department official said.
The sharp deterioration in Iraq represents a significant security issue to the United States and Iran, adversaries in a range of disputes, including the Syria conflict. Both were seeking ways to help avoid a collapse in the government of Maliki, a Shi’ite whose marginalization of Sunnis and other sects has been blamed by some critics for the dysfunction that has steadily worsened in Iraq since the US departure.
For Iran’s Shi’ite leaders, the Iraq crisis represents a direct Sunni militant threat on their doorstep. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, General Qassim Suleimani, an architect of military strategy who has helped President Bashar Assad of Syria in his war against Sunni radicals, arrived in Baghdad this week and has been reviewing how Iraq’s Shi’ite militias are prepared to defend Baghdad and other areas.
“The mobilization of the Shia militias, and Qassim Suleimani’s presence, is a very good indication of how seriously they’re taking this,” Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House research group, said in an interview with Iranwire, a website run by expatriate Iranian journalists. But reports that Iran had sent hundreds of Quds fighters into Iraq were not confirmed.
Even with their shared interests in a stable Iraq, there was no overt sign of cooperation or communication between the United States and Iran on the crisis. Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters Friday that “we are not talking to the Iranians about Iraq.”
Thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites responded to the call by Sistani, 83, a respected figure among Iraq’s rival sects, whose statements carry particular weight among the Shi’ite majority. The statement, read by his representative during Friday prayer, said it was “the legal and national responsibility of whoever can hold a weapon to hold it to defend the country, the citizens and the holy sites.”
The representative of Sistani, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaie, spoke in Karbala, a southern city regarded by Shi’ites as one of Iraq’s holiest. The sheikh said volunteers “must fill the gaps within the security forces.”
The statement stopped short of calling for a general armed response to the incursion led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has emerged as one of the most potent opposition forces in the Syrian civil war and which now controls large areas of both Syria and northern Iraq.
Volunteers began to appear at the southern gate to Baghdad, which leads to the predominantly Shi’ite south of the country, within an hour after Karbalaie broadcast Sistani’s call.
For the first time since the Sunni insurgents routed the government security forces Tuesday in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, their southward advance appeared to stall. The insurgents fanned out Friday to the east of the Tigris River and at least temporarily seized two towns near the Iranian border, Sadiyah and Jalawla.