June 13, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Cleric issues call to arms as Iraqis defend country

Obama vows no military action without reform

Iraqi men who volunteered to join the fight against a major offensive by jihadists in northern Iraq stand on army trucks as they leave a recruiting center in the capital Baghdad on June 13, 2014. Iraqi forces clashed with militants advancing on the city of Baquba, just 40 miles north of Baghdad, as an offensive spearheaded by jihadists drew closer to the capital. (ALI AL-SAADI / AFP/Getty Images)

Irbil, Iraq – — Islamic militants took control of two more cities in northeastern Iraq on Friday, prompting a senior cleric in the violence-plagued country to call on Shiite Muslim followers to take up arms against the invaders.

Fighters from the resurgent al-Qaida splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have rolled over large swaths of Iraqi territory in recent days, meeting little resistance from Iraq's marginalized Sunni Muslim minority and wide-scale retreat of Iraqi soldiers.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani called Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday to pledge his Shiite government's support, and Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard force said it was prepared to join the fight.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism," Rouhani told al-Maliki, according to the official IRNA news agency.

A prominent Shiite cleric in Karbala, Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, told worshipers during Friday prayers that it was every Iraqi's civic duty to take up arms and defend the country against the militants.

"All citizens who are able to bear arms and fight the terrorists in defense of their nation, people and holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy aim," al-Karbalaie urged in his sermon.

President Barack Obama vowed Friday that the United States would not be “dragged back” into military action in Iraq as long as leaders in Baghdad refuse to reform a political system that has left the county vulnerable to a fast-moving Islamic insurgency.

The president ruled out the possibility of putting American troops on the ground in Iraq, but said he was considering a range of other options drawn up by the Pentagon. Administration officials said those include strikes using drones or manned aircrafts, as well as boosts in surveillance and intelligence gathering, including satellite coverage and other monitoring efforts.

The fast-moving rebellion has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011.

In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay warned of “murder of all kinds” and other war crimes in Iraq, and said the number killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, while the wounded could approach 1,000.

Police officials said militants driving in machinegun-mounted pickups entered the two newly conquered towns in Diyala province late Thursday — Jalula, 80 miles northeast of Baghdad, and Sadiyah, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital.

Associated Press contributed.

In this still image posted on a militant Twitter account on June 11, 2014, ... (AP)
Iraqi men who volunteered to join the fight against a major offensive by ... (Ali Al-Saadi / Getty Images)