By Rebecca Shabad - 06/13/14 11:10 AM EDT
A senior Shiite cleric called on all Iraqis Friday to take up arms and help the government fight al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants who have seized control of key cities.
A representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani made the call during Friday prayers in Karbala, one of Iraqi’s holiest cities.
Sistani is respected by both Shiites and Sunnis for reaching out to all religious groups at the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and has stayed away from controversial rhetoric.
“Iraq and the Iraqi people are facing great danger,” Karbalaie said Friday. “The terrorists are not aiming to control just several provinces. They said clearly they are targeting all other provinces including Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf.
“So the responsibility to face them and fight them is the responsibility of all, not one sect or one party. The responsibility now is saving Iraq, saving our country, saving the holy places of Iraq,” he said.
Within an hour after the cleric’s call to arms was announced, the Times reported that volunteers showed up at the southern gate to Baghdad, the nation’s capital.
The Sunni militants, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have taken over key cities in Iraq’s north, including Kirkuk, Mosul and Tikrit. As of Thursday evening, they were reportedly only 100 miles from Baghdad.
On Friday, the Times said the rebels moved east of the Tigris River and temporarily seized two towns near the border with Iran.
President Obama said Thursday that he’s considering all options to help Iraq’s government. Administration officials, though, quickly stressed that placing ground troops in Iraq is not on the table.
Some members of Congress are calling on the president to launch airstrikes in Iraq, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has requested to target the rebel group.