Middle East

Sadr calls for new force to defend Iraq religious sites

Muqtada al-Sadr speaks to the press at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Jan. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

NAJAF, Iraq: Powerful Shiite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, who led the once-feared Mahdi Army militia, Wednesday called for the formation of units to defend religious sites in Iraq.

Sadr said in a written statement that he was ready "to form peace units to defend the holy places" of both Muslims and Christians, in cooperation with the government.

His call came after Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said the government would arm citizens who volunteer to fight militants, following the fall of Iraq's second city Mosul and a swathe of other territory to jihadist Sunnis on Tuesday.

But Sadr's involvement in the formation of such units would almost certainly be unacceptable to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, members of which are also deeply mistrustful of Iraq's Shiite-led government.

Before he suspended its activities in 2008, Sadr's Mahdi Army -- once estimated to have up to 60,000 members -- played a major role in the country's Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict.

Bloodshed in Iraq is now running at its highest levels since 2006-2007, the height of that sectarian conflict, in which tens of thousands were killed.





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