Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric has urged his followers to take up arms in the face of a Sunni insurgency that has overrun vast swathes of the north of the country.
Grand Ayatolla Ali al-Sistani made a rare intervention after Friday prayers in Kerbala, with a message relayed through spokesman Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai.
The UN says hundreds have been killed – with militants carrying out summary executions of civilians in Mosul.
Both the US and Iran have promised to help the fight against the insurgency.
Led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the Sunni insurgents have threatened to push to the capital, Baghdad, and regions further south dominated by Iraq\’s Shia Muslim majority, whom they regard as "infidels".
Sistani\’s issued the call to arms on Friday to defend Iraq against the offensive spearheaded by the armed group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have gained more ground in the country overnight, by seizing the strategically important towns of Jalulah and Saaiydiyah.
"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," Sistani\’s representative announced on his behalf during Friday prayers in the Shia shrine city of Karbala.
"He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honour will be a martyr," he added.
The elderly Sistani, who rarely appears in public, is highly influential in the Shia Muslim world and is revered by millions, AFP news agency reported.
Shortly after Sistani made his appeal, more than a thousand volunteers from the Shia city of Karbala made their way down to an army camp in the city of Taji, about 30km north of Baghdad.
The Associated Press news agency reported that they were set to take part in a one-day training course before being deployed to fight alongside Iraqi troops.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces have moved to fill the power vacuum caused by the retreating Iraqi forces – taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki
on Thursday and promised that Shia-majority Iran would "not allow the supporters of terrorists to disrupt security and stability of Iraq through exporting terrorism to Iraq".
US President Barack Obama said he did not "rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in Iraq, or Syria for that matter".
At a news conference in London, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Iraq was facing a "brutal enemy" that also posed a threat to US interests.
He also said Mr Maliki needed to do more to resolve political differences fuelled by sectarian differences.
Source – Agencies