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Senior Iraqi Shia cleric issues calls to arms as ISIS tightens grip -

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ELIZABETH JACKSON: Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has issued a call to arms after Sunni-led insurgents seized more towns overnight.

The ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants and Sunni insurgents have tightened their grip in the north and east of Iraq, and are now threatening to march south towards Baghdad.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed extreme alarm at the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, particularly in cities like Mosul where there are reports of prisoners being freed and summary executions of Iraqi soldiers and police.

Our correspondent Matt Brown is in the north-eastern city of Erbil.

He says the Shiite call to arms is a significant turning point.

MATT BROWN: Well, the most significant development's a religious and political one rather than one on the ground per se, and that is from the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who urged Iraqis, and obviously, therefore, Shiites, to take up arms by joining the security forces to fight the Sunni insurgency.

That's dramatic because he generally stays out of politics. And this intervention will be seen as legitimating a whole range of Shiite activity, including by very powerful well-funded and trained Shiite militias that have been wreaking havoc amongst elements of the Sunni community already.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Do you think that there will be a wave of people signing up to join the forces?

MATT BROWN: There has been already, and it will be exacerbated by what Ali al-Sistani has said. That doesn't mean much in a sense in the immediate term because obviously it takes time to train a soldier. And I think far more significant is the succour that the members of the militia will take from it and what it means in general in the community.

This is like the Pope telling Catholics to take up arms against Protestants.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Why is this so necessary Matt? What's happened to the Iraqi army?

MATT BROWN: It's been an extraordinary tale.

I was talking to some soldiers today even who had deserted their posts in Mosul, which is about 100 kilometres to my west, and essentially they melted away in the face of the fighters from ISIS, the Sunni extremists in this al-Qaeda-inspired group.

I was speaking to a Sunni tribal sheikh this afternoon who perhaps boastfully, but perhaps with a kernel of truth in it, was saying: look, we've been fighting the Iraqi army, which is a Shiite dominated army, over in Anbar Province, where the Sunnis rose up earlier this year. We've been fighting them there for months and they haven't defeated us. And in our view they've been demoralised and they simply weren't going to hang around and die defending land that's populated by Iraq's Sunni minority.

So they're not fighting for their home turf and they've been demoralised over a great period of time.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Is it likely, do you think, with the influx of new recruits that the ISIS group will be defeated, because they're not very strong in terms of numbers are they?

MATT BROWN: No they're not. They're a few thousand really. That said, they've got money coming in from countries in the Gulf; they've had experience in Syria, where they've taken a beating from less extreme rebel groups but where they made big gains at the start of the year.

That said, I don't think the recruits into the army will be the big issue. I think that the hard-core militias that I was talking about and assistance from Iran, and perhaps intelligence assistance and other forms of assistance from the likes of the United States, which has already supplied Hellfire missiles to Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government, I think those things will be far more telling on the battlefield.

But I also think with all of this talk about military manoeuvres and different militias taking ground, the key thing to remember is the deeply divided communities. People who aren't wielding guns are still terribly polarised between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority. And if there's going to be a solution, obviously it will be in large part a political solution. There's been no sign of that for months, even years really, which is what's led us to this point. And no amount of Hellfire missiles or militias signing up to do battle with each other is going to solve the underlying issue.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: There's been talk this morning of an assault on Baghdad. Do people in Iraq really think that's likely?

MATT BROWN: People are worried about it, and don't forget, it's only a few years since the place was an absolute house of horrors. Still a lot of car bombings are going off, and violence back up to the levels it was at in around 2008; but people are worried about a real surge in that killing.

I don't think that a column of Sunni insurgents led by ISIS waving the black flag is going to charge into Baghdad. I think what they're doing is moving into the Sunni-dominated towns around the periphery. And they will replicate what happened after the Americans invaded, which is that the friendly communities will give them support and they'll use those areas to do things like build car bombs, equip suicide bombers, and send them into the capital, attacking the many checkpoints, for example, that are up in the capital now that make the place grind to a halt on some days. There's a lot of targets there, a lot of static targets, and I think that's part of what we might see here.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Correspondent Matt Brown joining us there from the north-eastern city of Erbil in Iraq.