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Iraq’s top Shiite cleric pleads for armed resistance against Sunni insurgents

June 13, 2014 at 6:05 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Iraq spiraled closer to all-out sectarian war today.  Sunni militants of a group called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant marched toward Baghdad, while Iraq’s senior-most Shiite cleric pleaded for armed resistance against the insurgents.

Meanwhile, Kurds consolidated their position in Northern Iraq.

That’s where Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News begins our coverage.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITN: Under heavy guard, we headed into the city of Kirkuk.  These oil and gas fields are just a few miles from the ISIS front line.

This is the first of several vast military bases in Kirkuk which Iraq’s army abandoned overnight. Iraq’s 12th Division clearly left in a hurry, even abandoning their uniforms, so they could disappear into the crowd.

America spent some $25 billion equipping Iraq’s armed forces. But look at how much has been destroyed here within the space of a few hours. This armored vehicle was given to the Iraqi armed forces by the Americans. But the soldiers who were in charge of it appear to have destroyed it before fleeing in the face of the radical Islamist advance, just a snapshot of the kind of chaos which is happening all over Central Iraq now, a country in danger of collapsing as a state.

Kurdish fighters have taken control here, they say to keep the jihadists out. And we could hear gunfire nearby. Weapons are being traded on the street, as Kurds prepare to defend themselves from their Arab neighbors, the clear intent here to turn this part of Iraq into a Kurdish state.

MAN: We can’t live with Arab. They are — should believe in that is Kurdistan, and they are living in our land.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: These fighters from ISIS want a state as well, with Baghdad as their capital. And, today, footage emerged of this army of jihadists regulars moving closer to the city, with holy war in mind.

They have captured heavy weapons. These were filmed leaving the city of Mosul in the north. Today, the first visual evidence emerged of Shia insurgents fighting back. These are volunteers from the so called League of the Righteous. And with Iraq’s most senior cleric promising martyrdom to all those killed, the scene has been set for intense sectarian violence.

But in Karbala, one of Shia Islam’s holiest cities, there was cheering and shouting, as Iraq’s seemingly embattled majority announced it was preparing to defend itself, the grand ayatollah here sending out a messenger to deliver this urgent call to arms.

SHEIK ABDUL-MAHDI AL-KARBALAI, Representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (through interpreter): We call on all citizens who can carry weapons and fight the terrorists in defense of the country, its people and its holy sites to volunteer and join the security forces to fulfill this sacred goal.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: And these are those Iraqi security forces defending Shia shrines in the city of Samarra, as the men from ISIS continue their advance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s happening in Iraq poses challenges and potential threats to the United States.

Earlier today, President Obama addressed the situation, speaking from the South Lawn of the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In the face of a terrorist offensive, Iraqi security forces have proven unable to defend a number of cities, which has allowed the terrorists to overrun a part of Iraq’s territory. And this poses a danger to Iraq and its people. And given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well.

We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces.

We’re also going to pursue intensive diplomacy throughout this period both inside of Iraq and across the region, because there’s never going to be stability in Iraq or the broader region unless there are political outcomes that allow people to resolve their differences peacefully without resorting to war or relying on the United States military.

Although events on the ground in Iraq have been happening very quickly, our ability to plan, whether it’s military action or work with the Iraqi government on some of these political issues, is going to take several days.

We want to make sure that we’ve gathered all the intelligence that’s necessary so that if, in fact, I do direct and order any actions there, that they’re targeted, they’re precise and they’re going to have an effect.

The United States has poured a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces, and we devoted a lot of training to Iraqi security forces. The fact that they are not willing to stand and fight, and defend their posts against admittedly hardened terrorists, but not terrorists who are overwhelming in numbers, indicates that there’s a problem with morale, there’s a problem in terms of commitment.

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’re prepared to work together. 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.