Thousands of heavily-armed Shiite militiamen paraded through several Iraqi cities on Saturday after Sunni militants seized a town on the Syrian border in what appeared to be the start of a new offensive in the western Anbar province.
The capture on Friday of the town of Qaim and its border crossing 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 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.
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 were held 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 U.S. troops and was blamed for some of the mass killing of Sunni civilians during the sectarian bloodletting that peaked in 2006 and 2007
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media, said people were now crossing back and forth freely.
Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi tacitly acknowledged Qaim’s fall, telling a news conference in Baghdad that troops