Signing up: Iraqi men who volunteered to join the fight against Sunni militants leave a recruiting centre in Baghdad. Photo: AFP
Iraq sank deeper into all-out sectarian conflict overnight with the country’s most senior Shiite cleric calling for volunteers to take up arms against Sunni militants who are threatening to stage an attack on the capital Baghdad after securing key towns in the north.
As Iraqi Army troops reportedly abandoned their posts in the northern city of Samarra – the fourth city to be deserted by government soldiers in the face of the alarmingly quick advance of Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued his call to arms.
In a sermon at Friday prayers in Kerbala, Sistani's representative Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai said: "Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose."
Samarra is home to al-Askari shrine, one of the most venerated Shiite Muslim places of worship. An al-Qaeda attack on the shrine in 2006 ignited the last sectarian war that killed thousands of Iraqis and brought the country to its knees with years of brutal conflict.
As Iraqis continued to pour out of the northern city of Mosul – the first to fall into ISIL’s hands on Tuesday – the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed alarm at the dramatic deterioration of the security situation and the threat to the civilian population.
Amid reports of summary executions, extrajudicial killings and the displacement of some half a million people, Ms Pillay warned the full extent of civilian casualties from the conflict was not yet known.
“Reports suggest the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, and the number of wounded is said to be approaching 1000.”
“We have … received reports of the summary executions of Iraqi army soldiers during the capture of Mosul, and of 17 civilians on one particular street in Mosul City on June 11.”
Even before ISIL overran a series of towns and cities in Iraq’s north this week, a sustained upsurge in violent terrorist acts had been taking a very heavy toll of civilian lives across the country, she warned.
According to casualty figures released by the UN mission in Iraq, at least 799 Iraqis have died and another 1409 were injured in acts of terrorism and violence in the first five months of this year.
While long lines of cars were waiting to cross the border from Mosul into the safety of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, more and more Shiite families arrived at the nearby Khazir refugee camp that was fast expanding to meet the growing needs.
Red-faced and wilting in the relentless summer sun, those fleeing Mosul say they do not trust the promises issued by ISIL militants that their homes are safe and secure.
“They have been blowing up our mosques and shooting at us for the last 10 years and now, when they are in control of Mosul they expect us to believe they will not hurt us?” said potato farmer Ali Kdither Mustafa. “We do not believe them.”
“We have left our farms and all our wealth is below the ground – we are very upset to have to leave it all behind us.”
Along with ISIL fighters, the insurgency in Mosul had drawn in several other groups including Naqshabandis – the followers of Iraq’s former Baath regime – as well as tribal leaders, Mr Mustafa said.
Across the road at the Sunni camp, there was talk that a central military council had already been formed in Mosul to govern the town now all traces of the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been removed.
“Mosul has been liberated by these revolutionary forces,” Khalil al-Ta’ay said.
Until four days ago Mr al-Ta’ay was a soldier in the Iraqi Army. He abandoned his post because “this government is an oppressive government and I didn’t want to fight on its behalf.
“I was hoping that this day would come.”
The Iraqi Ministry of Communications has reportedly shut down social media, apparently in an attempt to prevent ISIL from using its PR blitz on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other applications to recruit more supporters.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces consolidated their hold on the northern town of Kirkuk after moving quickly to take control of the oil-producing area that Kurds hold sacred following the desertion of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIL’s advance.
And as the Sunni militants moved to Diyala province on the border with Iran later on Friday, they clashed with Shiite militias in Udhaim, about 90km north of Baghdad and in Muqdadiya, 80km north-east of the capital, Reuters reported.