BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s powerful Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has put his militia on alert to battle Islamic State militants for the city of Samarra, home to a Shi‘ite mosque whose destruction eight years ago plunged the country into sectarian war.
Sadr’s office said the announcement was a response to the “exceptional conditions and imminent danger to the sacred city of Samarra from the legions of terrorists,” a reference to the Sunni Muslim Islamic State fighters who surround Samarra.
It said Sadr had ordered fighters of his Shi‘ite ‘Peace Brigades’ to be “fully prepared to answer the call of jihad within 48 hours” and to await further instructions. The statement was dated Dec. 10.
Central Samarra is in the hands of the Iraqi army and several Shi‘ite militia who have spearheaded the Shi‘ite-led government’s battle against Islamic State, which controls of much of north and west Iraq as well as swathes of Syria.
Sadr’s Peace Brigades left the city two months ago, but his latest statement suggested they could mobilize to return if Islamic State fighters stationed at the approaches to the Tigris River city start to encroach on the urban center itself.
Samarra holds potent symbolism for Iraqis. In February 2006 Sunni militants blew up a shrine to the ninth century Imam Askari, triggering revenge attacks by Shi‘ites which tipped Iraq into years of sectarian violence.
Islamic State controls the eastern and western desert approaches to the city, 125 km (80 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
The army holds the road from the south leading to Samarra, but the towns of Mu‘tasim and Ishaqi flanking that road are largely controlled by the radical militants, while there have been heavy clashes in the village of Mukaishifa to the north.
A colonel in Samarra military operations command said it appeared that Islamic State was planning either a direct attack on Samarra or a war of attrition to divert government forces away from battles further north for the city of Tikrit.
Samarra and Tikrit, along with the town of Baiji, lie in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad. Government forces have succeeded in lifting an Islamic State siege of Baiji refinery, the country’s largest, and secured parts of the north-south highway running along the Tigris River.
But their control is tenuous. A convoy carrying Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi came under fire when it drove through Baiji on Monday.
Elsewhere in Iraq, an Islamic State suicide bomber blew up a Humvee west of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi, destroying a bridge and killing two soldiers, an Anbar police source said.
The army, backed by Sunni tribal fighters and security forces attacked Islamic State fighters in the Euphrates River town of Hit, also in Anbar, but witnesses said the militants repelled them, seizing vehicles and shooting down a drone.
Iraqi forces, backed by Kurdish and Shi‘ite fighters as well as U.S.-led air strikes, have pushed back Islamic State around Baghdad and some other areas in Iraq, but the militant group still holds large parts of the country.
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Crispian Balmer