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Thousands of Iraqis volunteer to battle militants

Hisham Issa Kamel slipped out of his home in Baghdad early Friday and headed to a recruitment centre, joining thousands of others signing up to fight an offensive by Sunni Arab militants.

BAGHDAD: Hisham Issa Kamel slipped out of his home in Baghdad early Friday and headed to a recruitment centre, joining thousands of others signing up to fight an offensive by Sunni Arab militants.

His wife opposed the move, but she did not understand how serious the situation in the country has become, "so I did not listen to her," Kamel said.

The assault spearheaded by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group has overrun a vast swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, driving south towards the capital.

With the security forces seemingly unable to halt the advance, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that the government would arm civilian volunteers.

Kamel went to answer that call along with thousands of others at a recruitment centre in central Baghdad.

Soldiers patted down the arriving volunteers and checked their identity cards. They later piled into trucks to be taken to military bases for basic training.

"If I stayed home and others stayed home, who will go out to defend our honour?" said Kamel, 23, who has been married for less than two months.

His father-in-law, Hamed Kamel Hussein, a 45-year-old former soldier, also came to volunteer.

"I heard that volunteering is open to all ages, so I decided to come and participate in the war against ISIL," Hussein said.

The commander of the recruitment centre, Brigadier General Fadhel Abdulsahib, said thousands of people of all ages have joined up.

A number of retired officers have even been willing to join as the lowest enlisted rank, he added.

Thousands have also volunteered at recruitment centres in the provinces, AFP journalists reported.

The pace of recruitment will likely be further boosted by a call on Friday by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, who is adored by millions and more influential than any of the country's politicians.

"Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose," Sistani's representative announced on his behalf.

"He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honour will be a martyr," he said.

Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, who was an army officer before retiring in 2010, said former soldiers had been called to volunteer, and that "we are ready to serve the country."

"Love of the country is what pushed me to join the army a second time," he said, adding that "I do not want our country to remain in the hand of the terrorists.

"Iraq is in danger," Saleh said. "I am ready to use all my past experience to serve this country."

Anwar Riyah Jabr, a 25-year-old taxi driver, said the suffering caused by the ISIL offensive, which has driven as many as half a million people from their homes, had spurred him to join up.

"I want to protect the country. When I saw the displaced families (with) no food and water, I decided to volunteer," Jaber said.

"I did not come to request a salary -- thank God, I have a car and am married with two children, and do not need the money."

Asked about his family's opinion of him volunteering, he said: "Everyone told me to trust in God, as this is a historic opportunity to fight the extremists."

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