Shiite cleric calls on Iraqis to defend country

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Shiite cleric calls on Iraqis to defend country
Iraqi Shiite women hold weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 18, 2014 in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. Iraq's premier vowed today to 'face terrorism' and insisted security forces had suffered a 'setback' rather than defeat, as militants pressing a major offensive attacked the country's largest oil refinery. AFP PHOTO/HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi displaced people, who have fled violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province, walk past the wreckage of military vehicles upon their arrival in al-Hamdaniyah, 76 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil, on June 18, 2014. Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi army's newly recruited men gather June 18 2014 in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf following top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for Iraqis to take up arms against 'terrorists' who have overrun swathes of the country in a major offensive. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to 'face terrorism' while insisting Iraqi security forces that wilted under a major militant offensive had suffered a 'setback' but not a defeat. AFP PHOTO/HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi special forces keep watch as they secure a district in West Baghdad on June 18, 2014. Saudi Arabia warned today of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces. AFP PHOTO/SABAH ARAR (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
PERSIAN GULF - APRIL 4 : A U.S. Marine Harrier jet lands on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard April 4, 2003 in the Persian Gulf. Harrier jets from the Bon Homme Richard continue to carry out bombing missions in support of the U.S.-led in Iraq. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
AT SEA - MARCH 25: A Tomahawk cruise missile flies toward Iraq after being launched from the AEGIS guided missile cruiser USS San Jacinto March 25, 2003 in the Red Sea. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Peshmargas of Iraq Kurdistan Regional Government patrol on the region to prevent infiltration of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants who seized Mosul, in Iraq on 12 June, 2014. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, only 1 kilometre away from areas controlled by Sunni Muslim Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the main road between Kirkuk, Mosul and Baiji in northern Iraq on June 12, 2014. With ISIL's Islamist fighters closing in on the Iraqi capital Baghdad, forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region took control of disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it from Islamist attack, officials said. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM (Photo credit should read MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi military personnel in civilian clothes ride in the back of a truck as they flee from the northern city of Kirkuk, on June 11, 2014. Jihadists militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executed 15 Iraqi security personnel in areas of Kirkuk province that the militants seized a day before, a senior police officer and local officials said. The Jihadists overran Iraq's second city of Mosul, the surrounding Nineveh province and parts of Kirkuk, in a major blow on June 10, that Washington warned threatens the entire region. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM (Photo credit should read MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with an Air Force soldier during a ceremony to mark the return of the United States Forces-Iraq and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011 ending the was after nearly nine years. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
ROCK HILL, SC - DECEMBER 14: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as first lady Michelle Obama listens during a tribute to the troops on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The U.S. is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by December 31. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
ROCK HILL, SC - DECEMBER 14: First lady Michelle Obama (R) speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a tribute to the troops on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The U.S. is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by December 31. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraq war veterans on August 31, 2010 at Fort Bliss, Texas. Obama is to address Americans from the Oval Office in a televised speech at 8:00 pm (midnight GMT), after travelling to the military base in Texas to meet with soldiers recently returned from Iraq. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraq war veterans on August 31, 2010 at Fort Bliss, Texas. Obama is to address Americans from the Oval Office in a televised speech at 8:00 pm (midnight GMT), after travelling to the military base in Texas to meet with soldiers recently returned from Iraq. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (7th L) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (5th L) greet troops during a ceremony to mark the return of the United States Forces-Iraq Colors and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011 ending the was after nearly nine years. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
First Lady Michelle Obama (C) is hugged by US President Barack Obama as they deliver remarks to troops and military families at Fort Bragg, NC, December 14, 2011. Obama on Wednesday marked the US exit from Iraq by eulogizing fallen troops and seek to move Americans on from a divisive near nine-year war which he opposed. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with General Lloyd James Austin, the last commanding general of US forces in Iraq, while greting returning troops with US Vice President Joe Biden (R) before attending a ceremony to mark the return of the US Forces - Iraq colors December 20, 2011 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The event marks the end of the Iraq war after the last US combat troops rolled out of Iraq into Kuwait on December 18. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize the control of Kirkuk where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had clashes, and Iraqi forces abandoned the city after these clashes, in Iraq, on June 13, 2014. Peshmerga forces, took the control of North Refineries and provided the security of the area, fight against the ISIL members in some part of the city. (Photo by Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize the control of Kirkuk where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had clashes, and Iraqi forces abandoned the city after these clashes, in Iraq, on June 13, 2014. Peshmerga forces, took the control of North Refineries and provided the security of the area, fight against the ISIL members in some part of the city. (Photo by Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi army troops chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they recruit volunteers to join the fight against a major offensive by the jihadist group in northern Iraq, outside a recruiting centre in the capital Baghdad on June 13, 2014. Iraqi forces clashed with militants advancing on the city of Baquba, just 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Baghdad, as an offensive spearheaded by jihadists drew closer to the capital. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces stand guard at checkpoints around the camp. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa (L), the Kurdish Regional Government's Minister responsible for the Peshmerga, visits Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deployedoutside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: It announced that many abandoned military vehicles are seen at the road as militants of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seize the 12th division command and the commander and soldiers leave the military quarters, in Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 12, 2014. (Photo by Aram Kerkuki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Assyrian Christian nuns flee Mosul to the safe zones near Arbil city, due to the clashes between Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) members and Iraqi security forces, in Mosul, Iraq on June 13, 2014. People are placed to the camps built by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government near Arbil. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children are given bags of bread at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in the country's northern Nineveh province on June 12, 2014, in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands of people who fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by jihadists wait in the blistering heat, hoping to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region and furious at Baghdad's failure to help them. As many as half a million people are thought to have fled Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10, after a spectacular assault that routed the army. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi children are given food at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province on June 12, 2014, in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands of people who fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by jihadists wait in the blistering heat, hoping to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region and furious at Baghdad's failure to help them. As many as half a million people are thought to have fled Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10, after a spectacular assault that routed the army. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. A tearful woman is seen at the camp. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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By SAMEER N. YACOUB and ADAM SCHRECK

BAGHDAD (AP) -- A representative for Iraq's top Shiite cleric on Friday urged Iraqis to defend their country as militants who have seized large swaths of the nation's Sunni heartland captured two towns in an ethnically mixed province northeast of Baghdad.

Neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran signaled its willingness to confront the growing threat from this week's militant blitz, which the United Nations estimates has claimed hundreds of lives.

The fresh gains by insurgents, spearheaded by fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, come as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government struggles to form a coherent response after militants overran the country's second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases - often after meeting little resistance from state security forces.

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

Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the U.N. human rights office, told journalists in Geneva that the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, and that the number of wounded could approach 1,000.

He said top U.N. rights official Navi Pillay plans to issue a statement later today expressing alarm at the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq, and said the office has received reports that Iraqi army soldiers as well as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul had been rounded up and killed by militants.

The assault also threatens to embroil Iraq more deeply in a wider regional conflict feeding off the chaos caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Iran's official IRNA news agency reported Friday that former members of Tehran's powerful Revolutionary Guard have announced their readiness to fight in Iraq against the Islamic State, while Iranian state television quoted President Hassan Rouhani as saying his country will do all it can to fight 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.

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

Shiite cleric Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie told worshippers Friday it is a civic duty to confront the threat facing Iraq. He represents Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq.

"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," al-Karbalaie said.

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

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

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, and the residents declined to give their names because of fears for their safety.

The Islamic State has vowed to march on Baghdad, but with its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far more difficult target.

So far, the militants have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki's government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would likely meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias.

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

Still, Baghdad authorities have tightened security around the capital and residents are stocking up on essentials. Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Trumpeting their victory, the Islamic militants also declared they would impose Shariah law in Mosul, which they captured on Tuesday, and other areas they seized.

A video posted online showed Islamic State fighters holding a parade in a Mosul neighborhood, with many of the gunmen cruising in armored vehicles seized from Iraqi forces.

A fighter using a loudspeaker urged the people to join the militant group "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 Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.

In northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces have moved to fill the power vacuum caused by the retreating Iraqi forces - taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.

Three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated from a major Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad, U.S. officials said Thursday, and Germany urged its citizens to immediately leave parts of Iraq, including Baghdad.

President Barack Obama said Iraq will need more help from the United States, but he did not specify what it would be willing to provide. Senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name said Washington is considering whether to conduct drone missions in 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 in 2011 - but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

"We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter," Obama said in Washington.

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

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