AFRICANGLOBE – Thousands of armed Shia Muslim militiamen chanted and marched in formation Saturday in a massive show of strength, vowing to defend Baghdad from a Sunni insurgent movement that seized two more towns in western Iraq from government forces.
Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, one of the United States’ most powerful adversaries in Iraq, heeded his call to fill the streets of the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.
Some clad in black, others carrying rockets on their shoulders, Sadr’s followers said they would protect religious sites from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni militant group that has seized chunks of northern and western Iraq in recent days and laid waste to churches and shrines.
But the show of force immediately recalled Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a fearsome militia that terrorized minority Sunnis and engaged in years of on-and-off battles with U.S. troops. Although the militia is officially disbanded, Sadr is still believed to hold sway over some 10,000 fighters.
Many have volunteered to join Iraqi security forces in battling the insurgents, and Iraqi officials say that for now their help is welcome.
“We can receive them as individuals, not as a group,” said Saad Maan, spokesman for the Iraqi army’s Baghdad command. Sadr “has called on them to protect religious places and we agree with that strongly,” he said.
The military-style parade — along with similar demonstrations in the cities of Amarah and Basra, in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland — came as ISIS fighters captured the town of Rawah in western Anbar province, about 175 miles northwest of Baghdad.
A day earlier, Sunni fighters killed 30 Iraqi soldiers before winning a battle for control of Qaim, a border crossing into Syria, according to Iraqi media reports. The seizure of the town was largely symbolic, as ISIS militants already control vast swaths of Anbar province and have virtual free rein along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
But controlling a border crossing could make it easier for the militants to move heavy weaponry between the two countries.
MORE: ISIL Militants Threaten To Attack Kurds
Militants from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have threatened to launch an attack on Kurds in Syria.
In a statement, ISIL terrorists warned that they would soon launch an attack on Kurds in al-Baraka region, especially the town of Qameshli in northeast Syria, to punish them.
This came after the Kurdish National Council in Syria convened a meeting in the city of Amouda in north of al-Hasakah Province in Syria to elect a ruler in a bid to secure their rule in Kurdish-inhabited areas. Kurdish groups had in July announced plans to create an autonomous government.
The head of the legislative council of Kurds said the move was aimed at strengthening the foundations of an autonomous government and to prevent a political and security void.
The decision to choose a leader came after Syrian Defense Minister Fahd al-Freij recently visited Hasakah Province, during which he stressed the sovereignty of Syria’s ruling government, reiterating that the political and geographical map of Syria, especially the province of Hasakah, remains intact.
Most of the Kurdish regions of northern Syria have been the scene of clashes with the militants for the past months.
Syria has been gripped by deadly violence since March 2011. According to some sources, over 160,000 people have been killed and millions displaced due to the violence fueled by the foreign-backed militants.
Arms flow to Iraq, Syria must stop: Iran official
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff has called for an end to the dispatch of weapons to Iraq and Syria as well as financial support for terrorists, urging all countries to band together to combat terrorism.
“The issue of violence and extremism is not confined to national borders and has turned into an international issue. Fighting terrorism should be put on all countries’ agenda in every part of the world, and no discrimination is acceptable in that regard,” Mohammad Nahavandian told reporters in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, on Friday.
He added that the United States has so far adopted no serious measure to counter terrorism in Iraq.
The senior Iranian official emphasized that foreign intervention is a nonstarter when it comes to the settlement of the crisis in Iraq, urging all countries to support democracy and the Iraqi people’s demands.
He expressed Iran’s concerns about Iraq developments, saying Tehran scrutinizes the ongoing events in the country.
“Iran is ready to help the Iraqi people and government upon their request. We are seriously concerned about holy shrines, as are the Iraqi people. If the Iraqi people want action to be taken, they will receive the appropriate response,” Nahavandian said.
On Wednesday, Iran’s President Rouhani said the Muslim Iraqi nation will push back terrorists and their supporters, stressing that the Islamic Republic will spare no effort to protect holy shrines in Iraq.
He added that all superpowers, mercenaries and terrorists should know that the great Iranian nation makes every effort to safeguard holy shrines in the Iraqi cities of Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra.
Over the past days, Iraqi armed forces have been engaged in fierce clashes with the terrorists, who have threatened to take their acts of violence to other Iraqi cities, including the capital, Baghdad.
However, their advance has been slowed down as Iraqi military forces and volunteer fighters have begun engaging them on several fronts, pushing the militants out of several areas they had earlier overrun.