WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: Iraq edged closer to the brink Friday as ISIS made further territorial gains. The country’s leading Shiite religious scholar urged followers to take up arms and the U.S. planned to move an aircraft carrier to the Gulf. Fighters under the black flag of ISIS are sweeping south toward the capital Baghdad in a campaign to recreate a medieval caliphate carved out of fragmenting Iraq and Syria that has turned into a widespread rebellion against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
President Barack Obama said he was looking at a “range of options,” on how to respond to the crisis but ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat and said any intervention would be contingent on Iraqi leaders becoming more involved.
Any movement of an aircraft carrier, reported by CNN, quoting a U.S. official, raises the possibility of airstrikes, something Obama did not rule out Thursday.
Obama did not describe the “range of options” he is considering to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, a group he described as “vicious” and a “terrorist organization” that could eventually pose a threat to Americans.
He said Iraqi leaders needed to set aside sectarian differences to deal with the threat, and said the United States would engage in “intensive diplomacy” in the region to try to prevent the situation from worsening.
“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
He said he was concerned that ISIS could try to overrun Shiite sacred sites, creating sectarian conflicts “that could be very hard to stamp out.” The rebels are Sunni and the Baghdad government of Maliki is dominated by Shiites.
Obama was expected to talk to foreign leaders about the situation over the weekend, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One.
In a rare intervention at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala, a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the highest religious authority for Shiites in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against a lightning advance by ISIS militants, escalating a conflict that threatens civil war and a possible break-up of the country.
“People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country ... should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal,” Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai said, delivering Sistani’s message.
Those killed fighting ISIS militants would be martyrs, he said as the faithful chanted in acknowledgement.
Amid the spreading chaos, Iraqi Kurdish forces seized control of Kirkuk, an oil hub just outside their autonomous enclave that they have long seen as their historical capital, three days after ISIS fighters captured the major city of Mosul.
There are concerns that sectarian and tribal conflict might dismember Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities. The atmosphere in Baghdad was tense Friday, the streets were empty, and residents were stockpiling food and arming themselves.
Thrusting further to the southeast after their seizure of Mosul in the far north and Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, ISIS entered two towns in Diyala province bordering Iran.
Saadiyah and Jalawla had fallen to the Sunni insurgents after government troops fled their positions.
Iraqi army units subsequently subjected Saadiyah and Jalawla to artillery fire from the nearby town of Muqdadiya. ISIS fighters eventually withdrew from Jalawla and well-organized Kurdish peshmerga fighters took over. Iraqi army helicopters fired rockets at one of the largest mosques in Tikrit Friday, according to witnesses. There were no further details available.
Friday, ISIS said it was giving soldiers and policemen a “chance to repent ... For those asking who we are, we are the soldiers of Islam and have shouldered the responsibility to restore the glory of the Islamic Caliphate.”
Residents near the border with Syria, where ISIS has exploited civil war to seize wide tracts of that country’s east, watched militants bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms – as a prelude to trying to revive a medieval entity straddling both modern states.