Update (2:13 PM EST): US sends aircraft carrier to Persian Gulf as Obama considers air strikes in Iraq
The Guardian reports:
The US is sending an aircraft carrier and two guided missile ships into the Persian Gulf, bolstering sea and airpower before a possible US strike on the jihadist army in Iraq in the coming days.
Defense secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the USS George HW Bush into the Gulf on Saturday, a day after President Barack Obama indicated he would soon decide on air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), whose seizure of Sunni Iraqi cities has violently upended the region.
The 103,000-tonne warship and its air wing, which had been patrolling the North Arabian Sea and earlier this year were used in the Mediterranean following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, gives Obama airstrike options in addition to air force assets on land in bases used by the US, like Qatar's al-Udeid.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Bush would be accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxton. The ships are expected to arrive in the Gulf this evening.
Ealier: Civil war looms; Iraq Army, Shiite militias gaining recruits; President Hassan Rouhani of Iran says his troops will back Maliki government against ISIL forces alongside hints of cooperation with US
Shiite militias in Baghdad and across Iraq on Saturday are reportedly receiving throngs of new recruits who have answered calls to join the fight against the Sunni army known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has taken large swaths of territory in recent weeks and is now threatening to bring the battle to the nation's capital city.
As the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seeks to counter the collapse and defeat of its army in the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit earlier in the week, both the Obama administration and Maliki's allies in Iran are vowing to come to his aid.
Reuters reports that a counter-offensive by the Iraqi Army was having success against ISIL in key areas on Saturday and staunching their promised efforts to reach Baghdad.
Citing a senior Iraqi official, the Guardian reports that "Iran has sent 2,000 advance troops to Iraq in the past 48 hours to help tackle a jihadist insurgency." Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has publicly vowed to support Iraq in its attempts to defeat the ISIL militants.
According to the Guardian:
Rouhani also made reference to the fact Tehran was cooperating with its old enemy Washington to defeat the Sunni insurgent group – which is attempting to ignite a sectarian war beyond Iraq's borders.
The Iraqi official said 1,500 basiji forces had crossed the border into the town of Khanaqin, in Diyala province, in central Iraq on Friday, while another 500 had entered the Badra Jassan area in Wasat province overnight. The Guardian confirmed on Friday that Major General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force, had arrived in Baghdad to oversee the defence of the capital.
There is growing evidence in Baghdad of Shia militias continuing to reorganise, with some heading to the central city of Samarra, 70 miles (110km) north of the capital, to defend two Shia shrines from Sunni jihadist groups surrounding them.
Though the rigid lines of sectarian divisions are impossible to ignore, many are challenging the idea that what's taking place in Iraq is a purely religious conflict with observers noting deeper political and historical origins of the current conflict, most of which flow directly out of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that destabilized that nation's religious and political institutions in ways that have reverberated across the Middle East since 2003.
In Baghdad and the holy city of Samarra, however, it was mostly young Shiite men responding to the call by respected clerics who were seen preparing to defend their homes and communities from the ISIL threat.
The Associated Press reports:
The massive response to the call by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued via his representative Friday, comes as sectarian tensions are threatening to push the country back toward civil war in the worst crisis since U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011.
Fighters from the al-Qaida splinter group, drawing support from former Saddam Hussein-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, have made dramatic gains in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad after overrunning Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday. Soldiers and policemen have melted away in the face of the lightning advance, and thousands have fled to the self-rule Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
On Saturday, insurgents seized the small town of Adeim in Diyala province after Iraqi security forces pulled out, said the head of the municipal council, Mohammed Dhifan. Adeim is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. There was no official confirmation of the loss of the town.
According to the New York Times:
...the idea of bringing back Shiite militias sent a shudder through many, raising chilling memories of the sectarian war that raged in Iraq from 2005 through 2008, with torture chambers, ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods and bodies dumped in the Tigris with holes drilled in victims’ heads. Such a war, once unleashed, would be hard to quell, and Shiite leaders were well aware that the Sunni militants were willing to start one.
Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaie, Ayatollah Sistani’s representative was cautious on Friday. Speaking from Karbala, he said the numbers of fighters and volunteers “must fill the gaps within the security forces.”
For now the Shiite militias-in-formation are maintaining that they are not anti-Sunni. But distrust, if not unspoken loathing, is apparent — a mirror image of the Sunni militants’ views of the Shiites and a disturbing omen for the days ahead.
“Of course it’s risky if you arm civilians, but people have to defend their communities and localities,” said a Maliki adviser, adding that the government welcomed the ayatollah’s support.
Writing on his Informed Comment blog on Saturday, Middle East historian Juan Cole notes the significance of how Sistani's call to arms avoided strong use of religious language:
"There is nothing sectarian in this call except the need to protect the shrines sacred to the Shiites," observes Cole. "Sistani has sometimes been forced to rely on Shiite militias for his own safety, but he does not approve of paramiitaries and wants to see the Iraqi state build responsible army and police."