Jihadists must be expelled from Iraq now, says top Shi'ite cleric

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said on Friday that Sunni jihadists who have overrun swathes of territory must be expelled from the country before it is too late.

If the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not "fought and expelled from Iraq, everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning," his spokesman announced on his behalf in the shrine city of Karbala.

The spokesman said Iraqis of all religions and communities had to band together to fight militants, led by ISIL but including other groups, such as loyalists of late dictator Saddam Hussein.

He said a previous call by Grand Ayatollah Sistani for Iraqis to join the armed forces "was for all citizens, without specifying a religion," clearly outlining a cross-sectarian push.

"The goal was to get ready to face the takfiri group called ISIL, which now has the upper hand... in what is happening in many provinces," he added, using an Arabic word that loosely translates as extremist.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani's statements carry enormous weight in Shi'ite-majority Iraq. The bearded, reclusive cleric rarely intervenes in politics, but is adored by millions, and his stature dwarfs that of any politician.

He is the most senior of a council of top Shi'ite clerics known as the marjaiya, and lives in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

Militants overran most of one province and parts of three others in a lightning offensive that started last week, alarming the international community.

Iraqi security forces performed poorly during the initial assault, in some cases shedding uniforms to flee.

They appear to have recovered somewhat from the initial shock of the onslaught, regaining ground in certain areas, but the militants have advanced elsewhere.