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Shia cleric's offer raises specter of sectarian war

BAGHDAD - In offering to help Iraqi security forces to fight insurgents after a wave of deadly bombings in the capital, an anti-American Shia cleric is sending a clear signal to the government: If you don't protect us, we'll protect ourselves.

Muqtada al-Sadr's statement raised the fearful specter that he might be considering reactivating his once-powerful militia, called the Mahdi Army, which would play into al-Qaida in Iraq's efforts to spark sectarian war.

Al-Sadr's aides, however, insisted yesterday that the cleric wasn't threatening to send armed men onto the streets. They say he was offering to help the government forces, who have been widely criticized for failing to protect the people as U.S. troops pull back.

The move comes as al-Sadr seeks to consolidate political power among Iraq's Shiites after a strong showing by his followers in March 7 parliamentary elections. A staunch opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, al-Sadr has emerged as a power broker who could play a key role in deciding the country's next leader.

Hours after bombs targeting Shiite mosques around Baghdad killed dozens of worshipers on Friday, al-Sadr urged his followers to remain calm and to do nothing to prompt U.S. forces to remain in Iraq any longer than their planned withdrawal deadline at the end of 2011.

But he added that he was prepared to provide "hundreds of believers" to join the Iraqi army and police to defend "their shrines, mosques, prayers, markets, houses and their towns."

He did not directly mention the Mahdi Army, which fought pitched battles with American forces and was blamed for some of the country's worst sectarian bloodshed before it was routed by U.S.-Iraqi offensives in 2008.

Senior al-Sadr aide Hazim al-Araji said yesterday that the cleric wants to "integrate the believers, and here I mean Mahdi Army people, in the security forces through official ways." Sadrist lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili also emphasized that al-Sadr's statement was not meant to supplant the Iraqi military."This cooperation does not mean that Mahdi army would go back with arms to the streets or participating in any violent act. It is only a call for cooperation with the army and police," he said.

An Iraqi government spokesman did not return calls seeking comment Saturday. But al-Maliki's senior aide Ali al-Adeeb expressed doubt that the government would accept al-Sadr's offer.

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