BAGHDAD: Iraq`s top Shi`ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Friday for a plan to purge the country of Islamic State militants after they overran the city of Ramadi.
The fall of Ramadi less than a week ago is the most significant setback for Iraqi forces in almost a year and has cast doubt on the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in helping Iraq to fight Islamic State.
In his first sermon since then, Sistani`s representative Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai did not refer explicitly to the city. But he said: "We must have a precise and wise plan drawn up by professional and patriotic figures... to resolve the military and security issues and begin to purge Iraqi lands of all terrorists."
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has sent Shi`ite paramilitary groups to try to retake Ramadi, capital of the westerly Anbar province, at the risk of inflaming tensions with the region`s aggrieved predominantly Sunni Muslim population.
The insurgents are now marching east from Ramadi and late on Thursday overran an Iraqi defensive line, advancing towards the Habbaniya military base where troops and Shi`ite paramilitaries known as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) were massing.
"The focus has been on defence more than offence: this enables the enemy to have the upper hand," Sistani said. "The initiative must always remain with the armed forces, Hashid and tribal fighters."
Last June, after Islamic State militants seized the northern city of Mosul, a call to arms by Sistani mobilised thousands of mainly Shi`ite volunteers to blunt the group`s surge.