A leading cleric has called Iraqis to arms as US President Barack Obama said he is examining options short of sending troops to help Iraq counter a Sunni militant onslaught.
Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the people to defend the country against the offensive spearheaded by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
A representative of Sistani, who is adored by Shiites but rarely appears in public, made the call from the Shiite shrine city of Karbala.
“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,” the representative said.
At the White House, Obama told reporters Washington was studying its options.
“We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces,” he said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who travelled to the embattled city of Samarra north of Baghdad, said in a statement security forces “began their work to clear all our dear cities from these terrorists”.
ISIL captured Iraq’s second city Mosul on Tuesday in a lightning offensive, before advancing south towards Baghdad.
“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.
“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.”
Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani of Shiite Iran, which borders Iraq, pledged his government’s full support against “terrorism”.
Despite their differences, Tehran and Washington are united in their determination to prevent Iraq following its western neighbour Syria into civil war.
But Washington said it had not begun talks on Iraq with Tehran.
Meanwhile, militants were gathering for a new attempt to take Samarra, just 110km north of Baghdad, with gunmen to the city’s north, east and southeast.
The militants have taken a huge swathe of predominantly Sunni Arab territory since launching their offensive in Mosul late on Monday, and on Friday battled pro-government forces near Muqdadiyah, just 80 kilometres from Baghdad’s city limits.
The International Organisation for Migration estimated that 40,000 people have fled Tikrit and Samarra, adding to half a million people believed to have fled Mosul.
A UN spokesman said the world body was stepping up aid deliveries to Iraq in response.