CAIRO — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed again Saturday to defeat Sunni militants who have captured large chunks of territory north and west of the capital, Baghdad.
The Iraqi Army, meanwhile, claimed that government forces have regained their momentum, after a string of recent defeats.
Fighting continued Saturday in scattered regions north of Baghdad, with conflicting reports over which side-- forces loyal to Maliki's government, or a mix of Sunni Islamist militant groups-- had the upper hand.
In quick strikes this week, militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, took control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and advanced within 55 miles of Baghdad.
Late Thursday, ISIL fighters seized the towns of Jalawla and Saadiyah in the ethnically divided eastern province of Diyala.
A spokesman for the Sunni militants vowed they would push into Baghdad and on to Karbala, a city southwest of Baghdad that is one of the holiest sites for Shi'ite Muslims.
Iraqi state TV showed Maliki, who is Shi'ite, addressing a round table of dignitaries in Samarra, north of Baghdad, insisting that the Iraqi military would defeat Sunni fighters, whom he called “terrorists.”
Maliki's comments contrasted with initial reports on the ground earlier this week, when government military forces were reported to be giving up without a fight.
Maliki said troops who abandoned their positions and left their uniforms in the streets of Mosul earlier this week must return to their units or face possible severe punishment, including the death penalty.
One man in Karbala said that hundreds of men were volunteering to defend Iraq, and in particular holy sites like those in Karbala. The vast majority of volunteers appear to be Shi'ite.
On Friday, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a religious edict, calling on men to volunteer.
Iraqi military intelligence chief, meanwhile, told a news conference Saturday that the situation in Baghdad was stable and that the government had a plan and resources to keep ISIL militants away from the city.
Qassem Mohammed Atta also claimed that government forces had recaptured most of Salaheddin province and that military commanders in Salaheddin, Diyala and Samarra told him they were holding firm.
It was impossible for VOA to independently confirm the information.
Broadcast media reports have said Iran has sent fighters from its elite Revolutionary Guards' “al-Quds Forces” to help the Iraqi military.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted in a speech Saturday that his country would consider any Iraqi government request for help, but that no such appeal has been made.
Amid growing speculation that the United States may be forced to intervene, U.S. President Barack Obama indicated Friday that he would consider different options in coming days. He also said that Iraq needed to “fix its internal problems” or U.S. military help would not make much difference.
In a sign that Washington indeed may be preparing for air strikes, the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush moved from the North Arabian Sea to the Gulf Saturday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
The move provides Obama "additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq," Kirby said.
A guided-missile cruiser and a guided-missile destroyer will accompany the aircraft carrier, he said.