Middle East

Sadr followers march in Iraq as Sunni militants capture two towns

Thousands of Shiite militiamen vow to defend religious sites from Sunni insurgents in Iraq

Thousands of armed Shiite Muslim militiamen chanted and marched in formation Saturday in a massive show of strength, vowing to defend Baghdad from a Sunni insurgent movement that seized two more towns in western Iraq from government forces.

Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, one of the United States’ most powerful adversaries in Iraq, heeded his call to fill the streets of the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

Some clad in black, others carrying rockets on their shoulders, Sadr’s followers said they would protect religious sites from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni militant group that has seized chunks of northern and western Iraq in recent days and laid waste to churches and shrines.

But the show of force immediately recalled Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a fearsome militia that terrorized minority Sunnis and engaged in years of on-and-off battles with U.S. troops. Although the militia is officially disbanded, Sadr is still believed to hold sway over some 10,000 fighters.

Many have volunteered to join Iraqi security forces in battling the insurgents, and Iraqi officials say that for now their help is welcome.

“We can receive them as individuals, not as a group,” said Saad Maan, spokesman for the Iraqi army’s Baghdad command. Sadr “has called on them to protect religious places and we agree with that strongly,” he said.

The military-style parade — along with similar demonstrations in the cities of Amarah and Basra, in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland — came as ISIS fighters captured the town of Rawah in western Anbar province, about 175 miles northwest of Baghdad.

A day earlier, Sunni fighters killed 30 Iraqi soldiers before winning a battle for control of Qaim, a border crossing into Syria, according to Iraqi media reports. The seizure of the town was largely symbolic, as ISIS militants already control vast swaths of Anbar province and have virtual free rein along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

But controlling a border crossing could make it easier for the militants to move heavy weaponry between the two countries.

For more news from Iraq, follow @SBengali on Twitter

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times