19 Jun 2014

The fight against Isis: thousands of Shias join military

Volunteers who fight alongside Iraq’s security forces will be given 750,000 Dinars (£375) per month, the country’s prime minister says, as battles rage for control of the country’s largest oil field.

Non-fighting volunteers will be paid 500,000 Dinars ($450) and all volunteers will be given an extra 125,000 Dinar ($107) food allowance per month, a statement on state television the said.

The announcement came as Iraqi government forces continue to battle Isis militants for control of the country’s biggest oil refinery, Baiji, about 200km (130 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.

But there were conflicting reports on who was winning the battle. Iraqi government officials insisted security forces were “in full control” of the site, however trapped workers said militants were still inside the facility. The fighting comes as US President Barack Obama considers a request for air strikes against the militants.

Meanwhile it remains unclear whether Mr Obama or other administration officials would publicly call for Mr al-Maliki to resign. But officials believe that giving more credence to Sunni concerns could stave off another deadly round of sectarian fighting.

According to reports, over two million Iraqis have volunteered over the past week in a response to a call by the country’s most influential Shia cleric to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), an Al-Qaeda splinter group waging sectarian war on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, last week seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and has swept through the Tigris river valley north of Baghdad.

‘Iraqis are united’

“I came in response to a call by the highest religious Marjiya represented by Sayyid Ali al-Sistani to fight the takfirists, the militants. We are ready and all the Iraqis are united as Shia, Sunnis, Sabians and all other sects. We will remain loyal soldiers for a great Iraq,” said volunteer Sattar Jabbar before boarding a minibus to a military training centre.

We are ready and all the Iraqis are united as Shia, Sunnis, Sabians and all other sects. Iraqi volunteer Sattar Jabbar

“I have volunteered to join the Iraqi army to crush the heads of Daesh (Isis fighters) and those who allied with them. I am a Kurd from Sulaimaniya and I am living here and I have come to volunteer,” Mohammed Hassan added.

The volunteers were brought to Baghdad from across Iraq for a one week training course before being sent to cities controlled by the militants.

Newly-recruited Iraqi volunteers in police uniforms attend a training session at the Ibrahimiya police camp outside the central Iraqi Shiite city of Karbala (Getty)
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In a rare intervention at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, a message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the highest religious authority for Shias in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against a lightning advance by radical Sunni militants.

Isis fighters, who aim to build a Muslim caliphate across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, launched their revolt by seizing Mosul and swept through the Tigris valley towards Baghdad.

Battle lines

The fighters pride themselves on their brutality and have boasted of massacring hundreds of troops who surrendered.

Western countries, including the United States, have urged Mr Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to rebuild national unity as the only way of preventing the disintegration of Iraq.

The sudden advance by Sunni insurgents has the potential to scramble alliances in the Middle East, with the United States and Iran both saying they could cooperate against a common enemy, all but unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

According to one Shia Islamist working in the government, well-trained organisations Asaib Ahl Haq, Khataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organisation are now being deployed alongside Iraqi military units as the main combat force.

The battle lines are now formalising, with the insurgents held at bay about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad and just on the capital’s outskirts to the west, beyond the airport.