BAGHDAD // An increase in Al Qaeda attacks and a dysfunctional government have raised fears in Iraq about the resurgence of the Mahdi Army and the sectarian violence that could come with it.
The concern has been deepened by the scheduled departure of US forces by 2012, and many of Iraq's Shiite majority see the hardline Islamist militia as their only protection from insecurity and chaos.
At least two people were killed and a dozen others injured yesterday when a suicide bomber in a wheelchair blew himself up at a police station 25km north of Baghdad. On Thursday, more than 20 people were killed in multiple bomb attacks in a Shiite neighbourhood in the capital.
The strikes were the latest in a wave of insurgent assaults that have also hit Baghdad's central bank and government buildings in outlying provinces.
Even before the attacks, there had been talk within Baghdad's Shiite community that government forces may not be capable of providing security. Now, there are increasingly vocal calls for the return of the feared Shiite militia.
The Mahdi Army, military wing of the movement led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, fought US and Iraqi government forces after the 2003 invasion, and was implicated in sectarian-based violence.
However, it was considered by many of the Shiite majority at the time to be a protection force against Al Qaeda-inspired militants. As the sectarian civil war that consumed Iraq between 2005 and 2007 began to wind down, the need for the Mahdi Army subsided. By 2008, it had been defeated and disbanded.
Critics now worry that the militia, which supporters claim can call on 150,000 fighters, will pick up weapons if a new security vacuum opens up when Iraq's army and police take over from the departing Americans.
Some Shiites are already saying they want it back."The only thing that stopped the Shiites being killed in 2005 and 2006 was the Mahdi Army. It stopped Al Qaeda when no one else could," said Wedat Sabri, a lawyer from the Amira district of Baghdad.
"I would feel more secure if the Mahdi Army were protecting us from Al Qaeda gangs," she said. "I have no faith in the government security forces. The Mahdi Army actually wants to protect its people and it is capable of doing so."
Last month, in a mass march in Baghdad, Mr Al Sadr told supporters that the force had been reorganised and would resume its armed struggle against US troops if they had not pulled out by the end of the year as scheduled.
The show of power on the streets of Baghdad deepened fears among Sunnis and secularists of a Shiite-dominated, Iran-backed campaign to control the country.
Sectarian tensions worsened after the televised confessions of Sunni extremists convicted of a wedding-day massacre in 2006, their gruesome testimonies stoking fears among Shiites.
An account of one of the most notorious atrocities committed since 2003 told how Sunni militants had tortured and murdered Shiite men, women and children in the town of Dujail.
Although the mastermind was convicted this month, security forces said another 20 suspects remained at large. For many Iraqis, the coverage brought back searing memories of war and sectarian discord and added to fears about what lies ahead in the absence of a US-backed security force.
Abu Laith, a Shiite restaurant owner who lives in Baghdad's upmarket Mansour district, said: "When I saw the details of the wedding massacre I invited the Mahdi Army back to my neighbourhood. It's time for the government to admit it cannot stop Al Qaeda and for the Mahdi Army to come back. I know I can trust them."
The sense of rising instability has led to accusations from Iraq's divided political blocs, each charging their rivals with incompetence, authoritarian tendencies or fearmongering.
Sunni-dominated groups and secular nationalists say the Mahdi Army want any excuse to return and will push an Iranian agenda. The Sadrists insist the US military is looking for any pretext to stay past their mandate. Bahaa Al Araji, a Sadrist parliamentarian, who accused US forces of staging attacks blamed on Al Qaeda, said: "Now the Americans are conducting these [insurgent] operations to sustain their presence in the country."
Such allegations have been dismissed by analysts who blame rising insecurity on a failure to heal political schisms and the inadequacies of Iraqi security forces.
Saadoun Al Mayahi, an Iraq analyst and an expert on Islamic extremist groups, said: "Al Qaeda has been attacking again and that reminds people of the bad days of 2006 and 2007. The Americans want to build strong Iraqi security services but al Qa eda has sensed the army, intelligence and police are weakened by political conflict and see their chance to sow chaos."
Despite entering a national coalition government under the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, at the end of last year, Iraq's main political factions continue to dispute vital polices and major ministerial portfolios, including the security ministries of defence and interior.
Ahmad Al Khafaji, an independent political analyst in Baghdad, said: "Iraqi politicians will use sectarianism and will feed hatred of other groups to try to get what they want. Iraq is on edge and people are afraid again."