ISTANBUL — The likely breakup of Iraq into feuding ethnic and sectarian bastions accelerated Friday as Iraq’s senior Shiite Muslim cleric broke years of support for the central government and decreed that every able-bodied Shiite man had a religious obligation to defend the sect’s holy sites from rebellious Sunni Muslims led by fighters from the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In answer to the call, thousands of Shiites _ many with militia experience from the sectarian war that pitted Sunnis against Shiites and killed thousands from 2006 to 2008 _ flooded the cities of Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala to receive weapons, enlist in organized units and receive their orders.
Hours later, President Barack Obama made it clear that the United States was unwilling to commit itself to the defense of a government that had been unable to resolve Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian differences.
“We're not going to 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 and prosperity of the country,” Obama said.
With Sunni Islamists in control of much of the north and west, Kurds expanding their control of the long-contested Kirkuk region and Shiites gathering for sectarian war, the likelihood of any accommodation seemed remote.
Emma Sky, a fellow at Yale University who advised U.S. forces in Iraq until 2010, called the events “the slow death” of the Iraqi state in an interview with McClatchy.
Perhaps most telling was Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s religious endorsement of Shiite men taking up arms to defend “their homes, their cities and their holy places” from the Sunnis. Previously, Sistani had rejected militia activities and urged support for the central government, even during the darkest days of the 2006-08 sectarian war.
A Shiite resident of Baghdad, who asked to be called Abu Zeinab, said his neighborhood near the Shiite Shrine of Khadam in the neighborhood of Khadamiya was filled with volunteers after Sistani’s decree became known.
“The statement by the marja, Sistani,” he said, using an Arabic term of respect that loosely means “object of emulation,” “has changed everything now. It says we should fight as Shiites to protect Shiites. I think this means there is no Iraqi state now.”
Iraqi state television showed dozens of vehicles filled with hundreds of men in Baghdad singing martial Shiite songs commemorating the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680, when the Sunni caliphate destroyed a Shiite uprising _ an event that’s played heavily in the rhetoric of both sides; in recent days, Islamic State of Iraq members have threatened to repeat that massacre.
“People are scared of the Wahhabi invaders,” Abu Zeinab said, using a term common in Iraq to describe ISIS ideology that allows killing Muslims deemed insufficiently pious, particularly Shiites. “All the boys from the neighborhood who were in militias during the American occupation have returned, and hundreds of youth from the (Shiite-dominated south) have come to fight. The government and the militias are handing out arms. I think there’re Iranians here as well; there’re always Iranians here at the shrine.”
Other Baghdad residents reached by phone said a near-panic had set in among much of the population as rumors were spreading about an impending jihadist invasion of the city. Rumors were rife that the government planned to block popular text-messaging and social media services in the city to try to contain the hysteria. There was no official announcement from the government, however.
Meanwhile, ISIS and its Sunni allies continued capturing ground in areas disputed between Sunni and Shiite religious factions while the Iraqi army appeared irrelevant to the conflict.
Iranian and Iraqi news organizations were filled with reports that the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al Quds Force, the cross between an intelligence agency and special forces that’s often deployed to pursue Iranian foreign and security policy, had arrived in Baghdad to direct the fight against ISIS after four days that saw the army crumble.
Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani was, according to numerous credible reports, said to be directing the defenses of Baghdad personally. Suleimani, a well-known figure in Middle East security circles, is said to control Iranian operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Supporters of Iran often credit him with devising the strategy that’s salvaged the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad during the past year of civil war there.
On Friday, CNN reported that a senior Iraqi official had said that as many as 500 troops from the al Quds Force had begun arriving to help protect Baghdad. CNN said the official had said the Iranians would be deployed to Diyala province, a mixed Sunni and Shiite area, where their presence would generate less anger than in the mostly Sunni areas now under ISIS control.
A former European intelligence official, who runs a consultancy in the region and regularly deals with Iranian government representatives in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, said in an interview that he expected any Iranian troops sent to Iraq would augment what was already a robust covert presence.
“Hajj Qassem does not get taken by surprise, not next door to his own country,” the consultant said, asking that his own name not be used on such a sensitive subject. “Hajj” is an Islamic honorific.
The consultant said he suspected that ISIS’s rapid advance hadn’t surprised the Iranians. “I’ve been hearing about the problems with ISIS in the desert outside Mosul for a year and have been told the Iranians were warning Maliki about this,” he said.
The claim that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had had ample warning of a serious problem, beyond the loss of the western desert of al Anbar nearly six months ago, also was made by a top security official of the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia.
“Especially in Nineveh, Salahuddin and Anbar governorates, the Iraqi security agencies and ministries have been incapable, and soldiers and employees were only interested in collecting their salaries,” Lt. Gen. Jabbar Yawar told a Kurdistan Regional Government website. He said Kurdish officials had warned that the security forces were poorly trained but “Baghdad did not heed the . . . warnings and now, unfortunately, our predictions have come to pass.”
He added that Kurdish officials had proposed that “several military bases be built in Anbar, Salahuddin and Mosul, particularly at the desert border areas” but that Maliki had ignored the suggestions. “Baghdad incorrectly interpreted our proposals as politically motivated and not in the public’s interest,” he said.
The mustering of the Shiite community was to be expected: ISIS had issued a manifesto Thursday in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which it had captured Tuesday, calling for the destruction of all Shiite shrines.
Abu Zeinab said daily life was tense in Baghdad as people stocked supplies and in many cases gathered weapons to prepare for a siege as ISIS and Sunni forces were rumored to be within 20 miles or so of the capital.
“Iraqis have only known war and shortages for 30 years,” he said. “We know what to do.”
Official Iraqi forces, which were humiliated in the immediate fall of Mosul and have continued to defect or surrender when faced with ISIS attacks, were said to be holding firmly in the city of Samarra, just north of Baghdad, where the al Askari Mosque is one of Shiism’s holiest shrines. They were bolstered by Shiite militias, including Assaih al Haq, a group trained by the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah that also helped the security forces fend off an ISIS attack on Samarra last month.
Some Iraqi media outlets were quoting officials as claiming that security forces had regained control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and a notorious anti-Shiite stronghold, but there was scant evidence to back that, and ISIS and its allies appeared to have moved even closer to the capital Friday, taking two key villages in Diyala province, adjacent to Baghdad.
In Mosul, an ongoing hostage drama involving as many as 80 Turkish nationals taken from a truck stop and from the Turkish consulate was reportedly escalating, according to Turkish media reports, with ISIS demanding $5 million to release the drivers and threatening to execute one an hour until the money arrives. Any demand for the dozens of consular officials has yet to be made public, although the Turkish government has expressed a willingness to talk with ISIS about their fate.
McClatchy special correspondent Joel Thomas contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero