But for Alwani, the self-described military leader of the anti-insurgent “Awakening” movement, images of tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen parading through the capital marked a threat to efforts to move beyond the sectarian strife that once nearly plunged Iraq into civil war.
The day after Sadr’s march, Alwani said, he sat with other sheiks, local government officials and “high-ranking police and army officers” from Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, to discuss whether Sunnis across Iraq should soon form or revive their own, Sunni-dominated militias.
“They believe there will be no one to protect them, no one to force the evil away,” said Alwani, who hopes U.S. forces remain in the country past their scheduled Dec. 31 departure date. “That is why they feel a need to form a popular army — just to protect themselves.”
On Friday, Sadr’s spokesman announced that the cleric had left Iraq two days earlier and returned to Iran. But it was not immediately clear how long Sadr planned to remain there.
In Ramadi, and across Sunni-dominated areas, unease over Sadr’s march has come to symbolize growing frustration with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, concerns about security and the political process, and fear of what many Sunnis see as Iran’s growing influence in Iraq’s affairs.
Maliki, a Shiite battling to hold his coalition government together, has been quoted as saying that the Mahdi Army, like any group, has the right to express itself in the new, democratic Iraq. Many Sadrist politicians also describe Sunni concerns as an overreaction, saying that their movement — including the Mahdi Army — has modernized and moderated as it became integrated into the political process.
But among Iraq’s Sunni minority, the fears of Sadr’s militia and Iran run deep.
“Al-Mahdi’s Army duty is very well known: It’s to kill the Sunni people and to evacuate Baghdad of the Sunnis,” said Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni lawmaker. “It is a shameful attitude by the officials to bless the march.”
Sunni leaders, who say they suspect Iran helped organize and fund the Mahdi Army’s march, warn that Sadr’s power play is becoming a recruiting tool for Sunni-dominated militias or terrorist groups.
Several of those groups helped fuel the insurgency against American forces in the months after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Now, some of their fighters hope U.S. troops will stay to help protect Sunnis against the rise of Shiite extremists.