Baghdad: A representative of Iraq`s most influential Shi`ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged people in a sermon at Friday prayers to take up arms and defend their country from mostly Sunni insurgents.
Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, who was delivering the sermon at prayers in the city of Kerbala, holy to Iraq`s majority Shi`ites, said those killed fighting the militants would be martyrs.
"People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defence of their country... should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal," Karbalai said.
In response, worshippers chanted "Labbeik Ya Hussein", meaning they would act at the behest of Imam Hussein, who is buried in a shrine in Kerbala. Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) captured two more Iraqi towns overnight in a lightning sweep south towards the capital Baghdad in their campaign to recreate a Sunni Muslim caliphate carved out of fragmenting Iraq and Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama threatened military strikes against ISIL forces on Thursday, highlighting international concern at the prospect of Islamist militants redrawing borders in an oil-rich region and potentially creating a new launchpad for attacks on Western interests.