Iraq says it has “regained the initiative” against militants who seized vast swathes of territory, while former UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is blaming the crisis on global neglect of Syria’s civil war.
Washington responded to the sweeping unrest by deploying an aircraft carrier to the Gulf but Iran has warned against foreign military intervention in its Shi’ite neighbour, voicing confidence that Baghdad is able to repel the onslaught.
The militants, spearheaded by the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist group, have overrun all of one province and chunks of three more since launching their offensive late on Monday.
Security forces have generally performed poorly, with some abandoning vehicles and positions and discarding uniforms, though they seem to have begun recovering from the onslaught.
Iraqi commanders say their forces are starting to push the militants back and soldiers have recaptured two towns north of Baghdad, with a spokesman announcing on Sunday that Iraqi security personnel had killed 279 “terrorists” in the past 24 hours.
Iraqi officials however often announce large militant tolls, with no way of independent verification, and downplay their own casualties.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, also said during a televised news conference Baghdad had “regained the initiative”.
Baghdad’s forces will be joined by a flood of volunteers, urged on by a call to arms from top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
A recruitment centre for such volunteers at the town of Khales in central Iraq came under mortar attack on Sunday, leaving six people dead, including three Iraqi soldiers, police and a doctor said.
US President Barack Obama said he was “looking at all the options” to halt the offensive that has brought the militants within 80 kilometres of Baghdad’s limits but ruled out any return of US troops.
Washington has, however, ordered an aircraft carrier into the Gulf in response to the crisis.
Obama has been under mounting fire from Republican opponents over the swift collapse of Iraq’s security forces, which Washington spent billions of dollars training and equipping before pulling out its own troops in late 2011.
Iran meanwhile warned on Sunday that “any foreign military intervention in Iraq” would only complicate the crisis.
“Iraq has the capacity and necessary preparations for the fight against terrorism and extremism,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said a day earlier Iran had not been asked for help by its neighbour.
But in surprise comments Rouhani added that Iran may “think about” co-operating with its arch-foe the United States to fight the militants in Iraq, despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington for more than three decades.
Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, told news agency AFP the international community’s neglect of the conflict in neighbouring Syria had precipitated the crisis in Iraq.
“It is a well-known rule: a conflict of this kind (in Syria) cannot stay confined within the borders of one country,” said Brahimi.
The international community “unfortunately neglected the Syrian problem and did not help to resolve it. This is the result,” said Brahimi, who resigned from his post as UN-Arab League representative to Syria in May.