In this Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015 photo, a Shiite militia fighter holds an Iraqi flag with the image of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, outside of Kirkuk, Iraq. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)
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When ISIS militants blitzed across northern and western Iraq last year, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call-to-arms by the country's top Shiite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to defend the nation against the Sunni extremists.Now the Shiite militiamen have arrived in Kirkuk, long one of Iraq's most hotly disputed territories, and have made a string of bases just 10 kilometers from the city their home. The Shiite fighters, officially known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, were instrumental in helping the Iraqi military – which dissolved in the face of the militants' initial onslaught in northern Iraq – stall the ISIS push outside Baghdad. They have also teamed up with Kurdish peshmerga fighters in a number of battles, breaking the siege of the northern Shiite-majority town of Amirli in August, and recently, driving ISIS militants out of a string of towns in Diyala province, northeast of the Iraqi capital.The Badr Brigades commander, Hadi al-Amiri, came to Kirkuk last week to deliver truckloads of weapons to Shiite fighters and vowed during a meeting with senior Kurdish officials to send thousands more from his militia to reinforce the area – much to the Kurds' consternation.Several militia commanders in Kirkuk estimate that as many as 5,000 Shiite fighters arrived in the region this month alone.For many of the city's Kurds, Kirkuk can only be Kurdish.
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