TEHRAN: President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Iran would do whatever it takes to protect revered Shiite Muslim holy sites in Iraq against Sunni militants fighting the Baghdad government.
"Dear Karbala, Dear Najaf, Dear Kadhimiyah and Dear Samarra, we warn the great powers and their lackeys and the terrorists, the great Iranian people will do everything to protect them," he said, naming the sites of the shrines in an emotive speech in Khoram-abad, near the Iraq border.
Rouhani Saturday pledged to help the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government if it asked for assistance, though at that time no such request had been forthcoming.
In his speech Tuesday, Rouhani mentioned petitions signed by Iranians who said they were willing to fight in Iraq "to destroy the terrorists and protect the holy sites", which are visited by hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims annually.
"Thank God there are enough volunteers Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq to fight the terrorists," he added.
The Iranian pledges follow a call by top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqis to volunteer to resist the onslaught spearheaded by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), who hold the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit and are fighting north of the capital.
Iran is 90 percent Shiite. Maliki, a Shiite, spent years in exile in Iran when Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein was in power in Baghdad.
ISIS considers Shiites to be apostates.
The major Shiite shrines in Iraq are in Najaf and Karbala, south of the capital, in the district of Kadhimiyah in Baghdad and in Samarra to the north, which the militants have made repeated, but so far unsuccessful, efforts to enter.
At least 5,000 Iranians have pledged online to defend Iraq's Shiite shrines against the Sunni extremists, a conservative news website in Iran reported Tuesday.