BAGHDAD – The wave of attacks by al-Qaida-led Sunni extremists that has killed thousands of Iraqis this year, most of them Shiites, is provoking ominous calls from Shiite leaders to take up arms in self-defense.
They generally insist they'll do it legally, under the banner of the security forces. But Iraq's young democracy is still struggling, nearly two years after U.S. troops withdrew, and the specter of armed Shiite and Sunni camps revives memories of the sectarian fighting that took the country to the brink of civil war in the mid-2000s.
Since April, bombings and shootings have killed more than 5,500 people. Averaging at least two a week, they target outdoor markets, cafes, bus stations, mosques and pilgrimages in Shiite areas.
Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who will meet with President Barack Obama on Friday, says he wants American help in quelling the violence.
Departing for Washington, he appealed for quicker delivery of offensive weapons such as helicopters that Baghdad says it needs.
Since late December, Iraq's minority Sunnis have been protesting what they perceive as discrimination and tough anti-terrorism measures against them by the Shiite-led government. The Sunni attacks followed a government crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija in which 44 civilians and one member of the security forces dead, according to U.N. estimates.
Now high-profile calls are being made for Shiites to play a role in their own defense by creating armed "popular committees," attached in some form to the regular security forces. The idea raises the specter of some of Iraq's darkest years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, paving the way for long-repressed majority Shiites to seize power.
Iranian-backed Shiite death squads roamed the city from 2006-2008, killing Sunnis by the dozens and dumping their often mutilated bodies on the streets or in the river in retaliation for the devastating bombings and suicide attacks blamed on Sunni insurgents.
It was a cease-fire by militia leader and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, along with a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a series of U.S.-Iraqi offensives that helped quell the bloodshed. While Iraqis continued to face near-daily attacks, they hoped the days of rampant sectarian warfare were behind them. Now a politician, Al-Sadr has urged calm among his followers and made no public statements about the calls to take up arms to protect Shiites.
Zuhair al-Araji, a Sunni lawmaker, pointed out that the insurgents are targeting not only Shiites but moderate Sunnis, and that arming Shiite groups would backfire. "We are worried that some militias will infiltrate these proposed committees and we will see grave consequences," he said.
But Jassim Mohammed al-Fartousi, whose 24-year-old son was among some 80 people killed in a suicide attack Sept. 21, reflects growing public demand for a response.
"The government and the security forces are incompetent," he said. "The popular committees will make us feel safe."
The civil war in neighboring Syria is also stoking the tensions as it takes on increasingly sectarian undertones, with many Shiites traveling to the country to support President Bashar Assad's government against mainly Sunni rebels.
Qais al-Khazali heads a feared Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Band of the Righteous), an Iranian-backed group that repeatedly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and says it is sending fighters to Syria to support government forces against Sunni-led rebels. He spent years in U.S. detention but was released after he was handed over to the Iraqi government.
Last year, the group decided to lay down its weapons and join the Iraqi political process, a move welcomed by al-Maliki. But addressing a conference of tribal leaders and clerics on Oct. 9, al-Khazali said his group needed to react to the "killings and destruction."
He said his "committees" would not participate in raids, but would cooperate with security forces in "patrolling their areas and setting up roadblocks."
Still, the security forces are supposed to be nonsectarian, and the suggestion of a Shiite militia in league with a Shiite prime minister's security forces is sure to heighten Sunni distrust.
Ali al-Moussawi, al-Maliki's spokesman, sounded lukewarm to the idea, saying the security forces "do not need armed committees; they need help with intelligence."
The law bans the formation of armed groups outside the state security forces, but the government made an exception for the Sunni militia formed by U.S. forces to fight al-Qaida.
Also calling for Shiite self-defense measures are Shiite lawmakers, one of them affiliated with Al-Maliki's parliamentary bloc, and some clerics connected to parties with militant wings.
Earlier this year, Wathiq al-Batat, a Shiite cleric who was a senior official in the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq, formed what he calls the Mukhtar Army to protect Shiites. He claims to have more than 1 million members, a number that has not independently verified.
In an interview with the Beirut-based Iraqi satellite channel al-Sumaria last week, he said his militia was "well-intentioned" and wouldn't attack Sunnis as such, only "takfiri" groups, a term applied to Sunni radicals.
Al-Batat demanded that in order to be within the law, some of his followers should be integrated into the Defense or Interior Ministries to work with the security forces.
Despite some attacks on Sunni mosques following Sunni actions, Shiite reprisals are far less intense than they were in the tit-for-tat bloodshed of 2006-2007, when Sunnis would be snatched off the streets and killed and many families were driven from their homes.
But that may change if the "popular committees" come into being, some warn.
Hadi Jalo, a political analyst in Baghdad, said the government "could implicitly give the green light to some armed groups to help the security forces struggling to put an end to violence and to ease the pressure from the public."
Shwan Mohammed Taha, a Kurd who serves on the parliament's defense and security committee, warned such a move could prove a turning point.
"The atmosphere is already tense and such move will lead to the militarization of society and then to all-out civil war," he said.
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