BAGHDAD, May 20 (UPI) -- U.S. officials warn that firebrand Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr, a key player in Iraq's political crisis as rival leaders struggle to form a coalition government, is reviving his Mehdi Army militia in the south.
There have been reports that the militia, which has close links with neighboring Iran, may have been involved in a recent surge of violence following the inconclusive March 7 parliamentary elections.
Sunni insurgents have in recent weeks unleashed a ferocious series of attacks, mainly suicide bombings, against Shiites, clearly seeking to provoke a backlash that would trigger a new bout of sectarian savagery as the country strives for stability.
Sadr's black-shirted militiamen have been quiet for the last two years after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's forces whipped them in southern Iraq and Sadr City in 2007-08 in an intra-Shiite power struggle. Sadr disbanded his fighters in August 2008.
But antagonizing the Mehdi Army appears to be a high on the insurgents' list, because if the militia goes on the warpath again and attacks the minority Sunnis, or even rival Shiites, the country will be plunged into sectarian slaughters again.
During that bloodletting, the Mehdi Army, about 15,000 strong, was the major force on the Shiite side, openly defying Maliki's Shiite-dominated coalition government and fighting U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Last week a minibus packed with explosives blew up outside a cafe in the Baghdad district known as Sadr City, an overwhelmingly Shiite slum of 2 million people and one of Sadr's bastions.
Nine people were killed and dozens were wounded. It was one of several bombings in Sadr City that killed 100 people. The message was clear enough: Come out and fight.
Sadr, who has been engaged in theological studies at a seminary in the Shiite holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, for the last three years, has moved toward reactivating his forces, possibly with the support of Tehran, which wants to see a pliant Shiite government in Baghdad.
Sadr himself has called on the Mehdi Army to support Iraq's security forces to protect the Shiite majority amid the military withdrawal by U.S. forces.
But U.S. officials in Baghdad suspect that may be little more than a fig leaf to cover the reformation of the militia, notorious for its brutality and corruption, for more nefarious purposes.
Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. forces still deployed across nine southern provinces, said he has not ruled out the participation of Mehdi Army fighters, or the various hard-line splinter groups that emerged after the 2008 cease-fire, in the recent violence there.
"There's been evidence in the past that they're not at all reticent to intimidate and to murder their fellow Shiite citizens, so I do not exclude them," he told the Christian Science Monitor.
Brooks added that provincial police chiefs in the south have been demoted or replaced by officials known to be pro-Sadrist.
That, he stressed, could signal rising tension between the Iraqi military, still controlled by Maliki, and police forces that are coming under the control of Sadr's forces.
Southern Iraq is overwhelmingly Shiite, and al-Qaida's Sunni adherents have never had much of a presence there, so the current spate of violence may be intra-Shiite and indicative of a Mehdi Army revival.
A senior Sadrite official, Baha al-Araji, denounced Maliki's government for the security forces' failure to protect Shiites from the depredations of al-Qaida and other insurgents.
He said Sadr, who remains in Iran in self-imposed exile, wants the Mehdi Army to be reconstituted to help the security forces protect Shiite areas and religious shrines, which have become key targets for the insurgents because of their revered status.
However, Sadr may be reluctant to unleash his fighters again because that could jeopardize his political position as kingmaker between the feuding coalitions of Maliki and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
They emerged as the main winners in the election, but neither had enough seats in the 325-member Parliament to give them an outright majority.
That left Sadr in a powerful position. His followers control the bulk of the 70 seats held by the Shiite Islamist coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance.
Given the old enmity between Sadr and Maliki, the radical cleric is unlikely to throw his support behind the prime minister -- unless he can extract some hefty concessions, such as the formal reactivation of the Mehdi Army.