BAGHDAD — In offering to help Iraqi security forces to fight insurgents after a wave of deadly bombings in the capital, an anti-American Shiite 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 known as the Mahdi Army, a move that would play into al-Qaida in Iraq's efforts to spark sectarian war.
Al-Sadr's aides, however, insisted on Saturday that the cleric wasn't threatening to send armed men onto the streets but 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. The cleric, a staunch opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, 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 worshippers 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 in 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 Saturday 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.
"The government might ask the help of individual citizens, not from armed groups," al-Adeeb said. "Such integration might aggravate the situation and provoke the other sect that would demand to do the same."
Violence continued Saturday, as bombs hidden in three plastic bags exploded simultaneously in a billiard hall in a religiously mixed neighborhood in western Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding 25, according to police and hospital officials.
Al-Sadr, who is widely believed to be based in Iran, has re-emerged as a prominent politician after announcing in 2008 that he was transforming his militia into a social welfare body with a few guerrilla cells to attack U.S. troops if the Pentagon refused to leave Iraq.
His bloc, which was part of a hard-line Shiite religious coalition, won 39 seats in the 325-member parliament, making him a sought-after ally as al-Maliki and secular rival Ayad Allawi jockey for the necessary majority support to govern.
The protracted wrangling has raised fears the political vacuum may allow sectarian violence that peaked after the 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra to rekindle. U.S. and Iraqi officials have credited Shiites so far for resisting retaliation.
Al-Sadr's offer may well be a political feint. His relationship with al-Maliki has been bitter at best since 2008 and his followers have frequently criticized the prime minister for failing to prevent bombings.
In offering his help — and expecting it to be rebuffed — al-Sadr can describe the militia as needed protection the next time his followers are attacked, according to Brett McGurk, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. National Security Council official.
That, in turn, is exactly what the Sunni-dominated al-Qaida in Iraq wants: a loose-trigger Shiite adversary who might be easily goaded into sectarian fighting.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the Friday attacks that killed 72, most near Shiite mosques or places of worship, but al-Maliki and other officials blamed al-Qaida in Iraq. The bombings were widely seen as payback for the killings last weekend of two top al-Qaida in Iraq leaders — and the smug cries of victory by Iraqi and U.S. officials.
"Government officials should direct their full attention to combating terrorism rather than showing up on television all the time to boast about their achievements," said Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo. He called the killings of the terror leaders "of little significance because al-Qaida is always able to produce figures to lead and continue."
For his part, al-Maliki has been put in the uncomfortable position of having to woo al-Sadr and the support of his followers. But al-Maliki also can't afford to give al-Sadr carte blanche, and unleashing the Mahdi Army would be seen as a hostile step against Sunnis.
"We know from the bitter experiences of the past that any further integration of militiamen in the official security forces will definitely have a negative impact," said Mohammed Aqbal, a lawmaker with the Sunni Accordance Front.
On the streets of Baghdad's main Shiite enclave, Sadr City, where weeping crowds marched in funeral processions for victims of Friday's bombings, the idea of remobilizing the Mahdi Army for protection had some support.
"They can provide security. The government cannot," said Najim Abdul Hussein, who works near one of the explosion sites. "There is no stability."