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al-Qaeda-inspired militants who this week seized much of the country’s Sunni heartland have pushed into an ethnically mixed province northeast of Baghdad
THOUSANDS FLEE TIKRIT, SAMARRA AS CRISIS DEEPENS Saudis fault Baghdad as Baathists bed with jihadists

BAGHDAD, June 13, (Agencies): Iraq’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric urged followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, escalating a conflict that threatens civil war and a possible break-up of the country.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama said he was reviewing military options, short of sending combat troops, to help Iraq fight the insurgency but warned any US action must be accompanied by an Iraqi effort to bridge political divisions. He said it would several days to decide on the US response. In a rare intervention at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the highest religious authority for Shiites in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against a lightning advance by militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Fighters under the black flag of ISIL are sweeping south towards the capital Baghdad in a campaign to recreate a mediaeval caliphate carved out of fragmenting Iraq and Syria that has turned into a widespread rebellion against Maliki. “People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defence of their country. ... should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal,” said Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, delivering Sistani’s message.

Those killed fighting ISIL militants would be martyrs, he said as the faithful chanted in acknowledgement.

Amidst the spreading chaos, Iraqi Kurdish forces seized control of Kirkuk, an oil hub just outside their autonomous enclave that they have long seen as their historical capital, three days after ISIL fighters captured the major city of Mosul. There are now concerns that sectarian and tribal conflict might dismember Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities. The atmosphere in Baghdad was tense on Friday, the streets were empty, residents were stock-piling food and arming themselves. Reflecting fears that ISIL’s insurgency could erupt into a civil war and disrupt oil exports from a major OPEC member state, the price of Brent crude oil edged further above $113 a barrel on Friday, up about $4 since the start of the week. Obama told reporters at the White House he would not send US troops back into combat in Iraq but had asked his national security team to prepare “a range of other options”

to help Iraqi security forces confront fighters from ISIL. He made clear he expected steps toward Iraqi political reconciliation. “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,” he said. American officials have watched in dismay in recent days as the US-trained and - armed Iraqi security forces have crumbled and fled in the face of an onslaught by the militants. Obama noted the United States had invested a lot of money and training in the Iraqi security forces. “The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight and defend their posts. ... indicates that there’s a problem with morale, there’s a problem in terms of commitment,” Obama said. “Ultimately, that’s rooted in the political problems that have plagued the country for a very long time.” Western officials have long complained that Maliki has done little to heal sectarian rifts that have left many of Iraq’s minority Sunnis, cut out of power since Saddam Hussein’s demise, aggrieved and vengeful — a mood exploited by ISIL. The ISIL advance has been joined by former Baathist officers who were loyal to Saddam as well as disaffected armed groups and tribes who want to oust Maliki. Cities and towns that have fallen to the militants so far have been mainly Sunni and the gains have largely been uncontested. It had long been known that Mosul, a city of two million people, harboured not just ISIL but also the Baathist militant group the Naqshbandi Army,

believed to be headed by Ezzat Ibrahim al Douri, a former close aide to Saddam. After the fall of Saddam to the US-led invasion in 2003, officers from the old Iraqi army who had not been reconciled to the new order collected in the Mosul area. The city’s proximity to the border with Syria allowed Baathists — Saddam’s political party — and Islamic radicals freedom of movement. On the advance, a member of the Mujahideen Army, consisting of ex-military officers and more moderate Islamists, said: “We were contacted by ISIL around three days before the attack on Mosul asking us to join them. Speaking honestly we were reluctant to join as we were not satisfied they could do the job and defeat thousands of government troops in Mosul. “When ISIL entered Mosul and swept out government forces positions in hours ... Only then did we decide to join forces and fight with them as long as we had a sole objective to kick Maliki forces out of Mosul and remove injustice.” The pace of events means that now, an alarmed Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the 1980s fought Saddam for eight years at a time when the Sunni Iraqi leader enjoyed quiet US support, may be willing to cooperate with the “Great Satan” Washington to bolster mutual ally Maliki. The idea is being discussed internally among the Tehran leadership, a senior Iranian official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We can work with Americans to end the insurgency in the Middle East,” the official said, referring to the sudden escalation of conflict in Iraq. The US State Department said Washington was not discussing Iraq with Tehran.

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