Call for fighters answered

Armed Shiite militiamen parade through several Iraqi cities as Sunni militants seize two strategically located towns

BAGHDAD: Thousands of heavily-armed Shiite militiamen paraded through several Iraqi cities on Saturday as Sunni militants seized two strategically located towns in what appeared to be a new offensive in western Anbar province.

Iraqi Shiite fighters parade in Baghdad. International leaders and Iraq’s Shiite religious elite have called on the country to unite to tackle the insurgent threat. Pic/AFP

The capture of the two towns — Qaim on the Syrian border Friday and Rawah along the Euphrates River on Saturday — dealt another blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied militants who have seized large swaths of the country’s north, including the second-largest city of Mosul.

But while al-Maliki has come under mounting pressure to reach out to disaffected Kurds and Sunnis, the display of heavy weapons by the Shiite fighters indicated that forces beyond Baghdad’s control may be pushing the conflict toward a sectarian showdown.

Sunni militants have controlled the city of Fallujah in Anbar and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi since January. The vast Anbar province stretches from the western edges of Baghdad all the way to Jordan and Syria to the northwest. The fighting in Anbar has greatly disrupted use of the highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border, a key artery for goods and passengers.

In Baghdad, about 20,000 men, many in combat gear, marched through the Sadr City district with assault rifles, machine guns, multiple rocket launchers, field artillery and missiles. Similar parades took place in the southern cities of Amarah and Basra.

The parades were staged by followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who once led a powerful militia that battled US troops and was blamed for some of the mass killing of Sunni civilians during the sectarian bloodletting that peaked in 2006 and 2007.

The al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, along with allied militants, seized Qaim and its crossing, after killing some 30 Iraqi troops in daylong clashes on Friday.    

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