Iraq’s government scrambled Saturday to rally the military and recruit volunteer fighters to combat the advance of extremist Sunni Muslim militants who’ve seized a swath of territory in the north.
Addressing military commanders in the town of Samarra, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to put new fire in his troops’ bellies.
“Samara will be the starting point, the gathering station of our troops to cleanse every inch that was desecrated by footsteps of those traitors,” he said in remarks made Friday but first broadcast Saturday.
The radical Islamists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, earlier this week and have threatened to march on the capital, Baghdad.
Although they have not yet delivered on that threat, the militants’ rapid advance — and the total collapse of Iraq’s security forces in the face of their assault on Mosul — has rocked the government and alarmed its international allies, including the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama continues to mull his options in the light of the militants’ lightning advance — but has ruled out putting U.S. troops on the ground.
A senior security official in Baghdad told CNN on Friday that in recent days, Iran has sent about 500 Revolutionary Guard troops to fight alongside Iraqi government security forces in Diyala province.
However, Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, have denied the reports that some of its elite forces are in Iraq to help bolster al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite.
The Iraqi Prime Minister said thousands of Iraqis volunteers had stepped forward to fight against the militants.
“They (ISIS) believed that this is the beginning of the end, but we say, this is the beginning of their end, their defeat, because it sparked the passion and determination in all soldiers and officers, and in all Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said.
The Prime Minister blamed the collapse of Iraqi security forces in Mosul and elsewhere on confusion resulting from conspiracy and collusion, but also warned that all deserters would be held accountable.
Footage from Baghdad on Saturday showed volunteers climbing into buses outside an Iraqi army recruiting center in the city.
At the same time, Sunni tribal leaders have lined up in support of ISIS, making their push toward Baghdad easier, a Saudi intelligence official told CNN’s Nic Robertson.
Rouhani: We will consider request for help
In his address Saturday, marking a year since he took office, Rouhani dismissed any notion that Iranian forces are deployed in neighboring Iraq.
“If the Iraqi government wants us to help, we will consider it,” Rouhani said, according to an English translation of his remarks in Farsi by state-run Press TV.
But, he said, “so far they have not asked specifically for help,” and added that Iran could give strategic guidance if requested.
“Involvement of Iranian forces so far has not been raised,” he said. “From Day One when the Islamic Republic was established, we have not done this in any country — to have our military forces conduct military operations in another country.”
“We have made our position clear. We are not involved in fighting in Iraq,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told CNN on Friday.
A senior Iranian government official told CNN that Tehran is monitoring the situation in Iraq and could send advisers there, but would not send a fighting force.
Obama: Won’t happen overnight
In a statement delivered Friday at the White House, Obama said the United States “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” but that he would be reviewing a range of other options in coming days.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” the President said, adding that unless Iraq fixes its internal political problems, short-term military help from the United States won’t make much difference.
Pressure for the United States to provide military support to Iraq’s struggling government has increased, with conservative Republicans blaming Obama for creating a security vacuum in 2011 by pulling out U.S. troops.
Critics also say that Obama’s unwillingness to provide significant military backing to opposition forces in Syria’s civil war has contributed to the ability of ISIS to attack in Iraq.
Obama, however, resists getting drawn into fighting there after ending the nine-year U.S. military involvement that began under former President George W. Bush.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday expressed alarm over the rapid deterioration of the situation in the country, citing reports of summary executions and extrajudicial killings.
While the number of civilian casualties is not yet confirmed, she said, “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 1,000.”
She also cited reports that ISIS fighters had summarily executed Iraqi army soldiers during their stunning takeover of Mosul on Tuesday.
More than 500,000 people fled in the immediate aftermath of the fighting in Mosul, the International Organization for Migration said.
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