Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric yesterday urged followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni insurgency, escalating a conflict that threatens to turn into a civil war and a possible break-up of the country.
At Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said people should unite to fight back against a lightning advance by militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Fighters under the black flag of ISIL are sweeping south towards the capital, Baghdad, in a campaign to re-create a mediaeval caliphate carved out of fragmenting Iraq and Syria that has turned into a rebellion against Prime Minister Nouri al-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.
US President Barack Obama yesterday said he was weighing a range of options for countering the insurgency, but warned Iraqi leaders the US would not take military action unless they moved to address deep-seated political troubles.
"The United States will not involve itself in military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they're prepared to work together," Obama said at the White House.
"We won't 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, as soon as we're not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability of the country."
Obama did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending US troops back into combat in Iraq.
Administration officials said Obama was considering air strikes using drones or manned aircraft, but the president suggested it could take several days before the administration finalised its response.
The ISIL has quickly overrun Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, late dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases - often meeting little or no resistance.
The insurgency, which the UN says has claimed hundreds of lives, has pushed Iraq closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones and threaten to expand into a regional conflict.
Trumpeting their victory, ISIL militants declared they would impose Islamic sharia law in areas they had seized. A fighter using a loudspeaker also urged people in Mosul to join the militant group "to liberate Baghdad and Jerusalem".
In Shiite Iran, the official IRNA news agency reported that former members of Tehran's powerful Revolutionary Guard had announced their readiness to fight in Iraq against ISIL. State television also quoted President Hassan Rowhani as telling Maliki that Iran would do all it could to fight terrorism next door.
The ISIL has vowed to march on Baghdad, but with its large Shiite population, it would be a far more difficult target with stronger resistance from government forces and Shiite militias.
Hundreds of young men yesterday crowded in front of the main army recruiting centre in Baghdad in response to the call to help battle the insurgents.