Iran will defend Shiite Muslim holy sites in neighboring Iraq from “killers and terrorists,” President Hassan Rouhani declared in an emphatic speech before large crowds on Wednesday.
The declarations follow huge advances by Sunni Muslim militants who have come within miles of Baghdad and destabilized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.
The crisis has prompted both the U.S. and Iran to say they could cooperate on Iraq – a striking development for the two adversaries long at odds over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran is considered the main Shiite actor in the region. It has deep ties to Maliki, while simultaneously helping prop up the Shiite government of Syria’s President Bashar Assad through a devastating civil war.
Many Iranians have signed up to defend the Shiite sites in Iraq and “put the terrorists in their place,” Rouhani said in comments in Lorestan province carried live on television and reported Wednesday by Iranian news agencies.
The sites are visited by millions Iranian pilgrims every year. From the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 until dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was deposed in 2003, Iran's Shiite faithful were barred from visiting the Iraqi places of worship.
On Tuesday, Maliki's Cabinet accused Saudi Arabia of promoting “genocide” by backing Sunni militias tearing through their country. However, experts told NBC News there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has funded the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
According to the CIA World Factbook, Iraq is more than 60 percent Shiite and about one-third Sunni.
Maliki has come under withering attacks for instituting sectarian policies that have alienated and angered the Sunni population.
David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warned Tuesday that by cozying up to Iran further, Maliki could further destabilize the situation.
"The closer Maliki gets to Iran and the more help he gets from Iran to help put down this rebellion, the more sectarian this becomes," Schenker said. "We’re seeing a regional proxy war, with Saudia Arabia backing regional Sunnis and Iran backing its Shiite allies."
President Barack Obama, who campaigned on withdrawing American troops from Iraq, is due to brief lawmakers on the deteriorating situation on Wednesday.
The violence in Iraq has sparked another round of sectarian bloodletting and evoked images of the country's vicious civil war nearly a decade ago.