Iraq’s Sadr clarifies stance on militia’s use

After a follower of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr vowed to dispatch militia members to defend Iraqi mosques in the wake of a series of deadly bombings, a statement from Sadr that was widely distributed Saturday made it clear that the Mahdi Army would be reactivated only if the government accepted the offer.

The militia’s fighters, who were involved in the bloody sectarian violence of Iraq’s civil war, were demobilized in 2008 after major confrontations between Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government and the armed group.

The comments Friday by cleric Hazem Arraji and a statement attributed to another senior Sadr aide had raised fears that they signaled a return to those terrible days.

Speaking to the Sharqiya satellite channel, Arraji had said that the Iraqi government had failed to protect people and that Sadr had told him he was sending his followers to cooperate with the Iraqi police and army in protecting religious sites for Friday prayers. Sixty-seven people were killed in a wave of bombings Friday, most of which occurred near Shiite Muslim sanctuaries frequented by Sadr’s supporters.

But an official statement released by Sadr’s office late Friday night and widely circulated Saturday clarified the cleric’s stance.

“I’m ready to provide hundreds of believers … to be official detachments in the Iraqi army or police to defend the holy shrines, mosques, praying houses and their cities,” Sadr said. He went on to say that the government was free to refuse the offer, “but we will be ready always.”

The initial reaction from those close to the government was chilly.

“The security issue is the government’s concern,” said Ali Alaq, a member of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party. “Also, the government has specialized ministries for security and it has a mechanism to choose their elements.”

Alaq praised Sadr’s followers as a component of the Iraqi people, but noted that their words came amid the intense bargaining to form the next government. “Maybe this offer has a political point of view,” he said.