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Shiite cleric urges Iraqis to fight advancing militants

BAGHDAD -- Leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis Friday to take up arms against Sunni extremists marching on Baghdad, as thousands volunteered to bolster the the capital's defenses.

Sistani's call to defend the country against the offensive spearheaded by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) came as U.S. President Barack Obama said he was exploring all options to save Iraq's security forces from collapse.

The United Nations reported a spate of summary executions by ISIL fighters in its campaign, which began with the capture of Iraq's second city Mosul on Tuesday, before spreading south toward Baghdad.

“Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” Sistani's representative announced on his behalf during the main weekly prayers in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala.

“He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honor will be a martyr,” he added.

The elderly Sistani, who rarely appears in public, is highly influential in the Shiite Muslim world and is adored by millions.

Obama said Iraq was going to need “more help from the United States and from the international community” to strengthen security forces that Washington spent billions of dollars in training and equipping before withdrawing its own troops in 2011.

“Our national security team is looking at all the options ... I don't rule out anything,” he said.

One option under consideration is the use of drone strikes, like those controversially deployed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, a U.S. official told AFP.

But there is no current plan to send ground troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died between the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011.

Secretary of State John Kerry called for Iraqi politicians to close ranks against the militants.

“Now's the time for Iraq's leaders to come together and to show unity,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged his government's full support against “terrorism.”

Despite their many differences, Tehran and Washington are united in their determination to prevent Iraq following its western neighbor Syria into civil war.

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