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Iraq: Sadr vows to protect Shi'ite holy sites from ISIS
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Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a speech from the southern Iraqi city of Najaf on February 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Haidar Hamdani)

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a speech from the southern Iraqi city of Najaf on February 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Haidar Hamdani)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has vowed to protect all Shi’ite holy shrines in the country following threats purportedly made by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

In an audio recording released by ISIS following its takeover of Ramadi on Friday, a man claiming to be Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, threatened: “After Ramadi will come Baghdad and Karbala.”

Both cities are home to Shi’ite-majority populations and Karbala is regarded by Shi’ites as the holiest site on earth after the cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Sadr promised that ISIS would suffer a “complete rout” if it “dared to even touch” any of the Shi’ite holy sites in the city.

The powerful Shi’ite cleric leads the Sadrist Movement, a popular religious and political group in Iraq, as well as the Peace Brigades, part of the pro-government Shi’ite-majority Popular Mobilization forces.

In his statement, Sadr said Shi’ite fighters had gathered from all over the country to “protect the holy sites in Samarra [which lies 78 miles, or 125 kilometers, north of Baghdad], Karbala, and elsewhere.”

Referring to ISIS fighters, the Shi’ite cleric vowed to “fill the land with their bodies.”

Sadr’s warning came as ISIS took control of Ramadi on Friday, the provincial capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest governorate, amid what many have likened to a repeat of the group’s stunning and unexpected takeover of the country’s second-city Mosul last June.

Iraqi government soldiers and members of the Anbar police reportedly fled their posts in the face of the ISIS assault on the city.

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on Saturday called for the Popular Mobilization forces to head to Ramadi to liberate the city from ISIS. The Shi’ite militias, along with Iraqi government forces, have been involved in operations to retake areas in the country occupied by the extremist group.

The most recent anti-ISIS offensive last month was a major victory for the Baghdad government and resulted in the liberation of the central city of Tikrit. ISIS captured the city in June of 2014 shortly following its takeover of Mosul.

Despite this latest advance by the extremist group, Mohamed Jamil Al-Miyahi, a senior figure in the Shi’ite-led Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), told Asharq Al-Awsat that the recording of Baghdadi, if genuine, is a sign of events tipping against the group.

“This attempt by Baghdadi to mobilize the Da’esheen [an Arabic word used to describe members of ISIS, or those who sympathize with them], is tangible proof that the group is suffering from a shortage of fighters and is attempting to seek help from terrorists abroad and within Iraq,” he said.

The audio recording is only the second recording of Baghdadi to be released by ISIS, although it is yet to be independently verified. The recording was issued following reports last month that the ISIS leader had been seriously wounded following an airstrike conducted by the US-led coalition targeting the group.