BAGHDAD - Iraq's Shiite clerical leadership Friday called on all Iraqis to defend their country from Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory, and a U.N. official expressed "extreme alarm" at reprisal killings in the offensive, citing reports of hundreds of dead and wounded.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he is weighing options for countering the insurgency, but warned Iraqi leaders that he would not take military action unless they moved to address the country's political troubles.
Fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant made fresh gains, capturing two towns in an ethnically mixed province northeast of Baghdad. The ISIL assault also threatens to embroil Iraq more deeply in a wider regional conflict feeding off the chaos caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011. It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government is struggling to form a coherent response after militants overran the country's second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases - often after meeting little resistance from state security forces.
A representative for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, told worshippers at Friday prayers that it was their civic duty to confront the threat.
"Citizens who can carry weapons and fight the terrorists in defense of their country, its people and its holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces," said Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a cleric whose comments are thought to reflect al-Sistani's thinking.
He warned that Iraq faced "great danger" and that the responsibility of fighting the militants "is everybody's responsibility, and is not limited to one specific sect or group."
In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay warned of "murder of all kinds" and other war crimes in Iraq, where her office says the number of those killed in recent days may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded could approach 1,000.
Pillay said her office has received reports that militants rounded up and killed Iraqi army soldiers as well as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.
Her office is hearing of "summary executions and extrajudicial killings" as ISIL militants overran Iraqi cities and towns this week, the statement said.
"I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies," Pillay said in a statement. "And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children."
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Friday he is weighing a range of options for countering the violent Islamic insurgency in Iraq, but he warned government leaders in Baghdad the U.S. will not take military action unless they move to address deep-seeded political troubles.
"We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we're not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country," Obama said from the South Lawn of the White House.
The president did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending American troops back into combat in Iraq. The last U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 after more than eight years of war.
Obama argued that the insurgency is not only a danger to the Iraqi people but also to American interests in a volatile region.
Administration officials said Obama is considering airstrikes using drones or manned aircraft. Other short-term options include an increase in surveillance and intelligence gathering, including satellite coverage and other monitoring efforts. The U.S. also is likely to increase various forms of aid to Iraq, including funding, training and providing both lethal and non-lethal equipment.
The U.S., which routinely has an array of ships in the region, has the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and an accompanying Navy cruiser in the northern Arabian Sea, while two Navy destroyers from the Bush strike group have moved into the Persian Gulf.
The ships carry Tomahawk missiles, which could reach Iraq, and the Bush is carrying fighter jets that could also easily get to Iraq.
Obama suggested it could take several days before the administration finalizes its response to the situation on the ground in Iraq.
"We want to make sure we have gathered all the intelligence that is necessary so that if in fact I do direct and order any actions there that they are targeted, they're precise and they're going to have an effect," Obama said before leaving for a four-day trip to North Dakota and California.
Officials said the president had no plans to cut his trip short.
The al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has quickly overrun Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit and smaller communities, as well as military and police bases - often meeting little resistance from state security forces. The militants have vowed to press on to Baghdad.
The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the U.S. withdrawal. It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Baghdad is unlikely likely to fall, according to officials who were briefed on the matter but would not be quoted by name because the briefings were classified. The Shiite soldiers who deserted en masse because they were unwilling to fight and die for Sunni towns such as Tikrit are much more likely to fight for Baghdad and it's Shiite-dominated national government, U.S. intelligence officials believe. U.S. agencies also assess that the Iraqi units around Baghdad are marginally better.
Obama argued that the insurgency is not only a danger to the Iraqi people, but also to American interests in a volatile region. He also cited America's long investment in Iraq as a rationale for stepping in to help the country from crumbling.
Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling in London Friday, urged Iraq's neighbors to also understand the gravity of the situation.
"Everybody in the region, every country that understands the importance of stability in the Middle East, needs to be concerned about what is happening with ISIL in Iraq today," Kerry said.
The Pentagon has been pulling together a broad range of military options that could be taken in Iraq, and is having discussions with the White House about the best way forward.
One of the immediate moves could be to position small teams of military troops and aircraft close by in case they are needed to evacuate U.S. personnel or to provide security if required.
More aggressive options include airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations against the insurgency, in conjunction with or with the approval of the Iraqi government.