| BAGHDAD, March 24
BAGHDAD, March 24 Influential Shi'ite Muslim
cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday that only Iraq's military
should hold territory recaptured from Islamic State, an apparent
sign of concern that rival militias might use the gains to
expand their influence.
"It is necessary to support the Iraqi army and security
forces to complete their victories in the usurped areas," Sadr
told thousands of supporters at a rally in Baghdad.
"They should be the only ones that hold ground after
liberating it - no others, whether the occupier, foreign forces
or others," he said.
The ongoing U.S.-backed offensive to recapture the northern
city of Mosul, Islamic State's last major stronghold in Iraq,
involves a force of 100,000 Iraqi troops, Kurdish and Shi'ite
The Shi'ite paramilitary groups, which include rivals of
Sadr's own militia, have played a key role in encircling the
extremist group in areas around predominantly-Sunni Mosul.
There was no immediate reaction from Kurdish officials and
other Shi'ite militia leaders.
Some Sunni officials fear the Shi'ite groups will aim to
hold territory in the region as the battle against Islamic State
winds down, raising sectarian tension.
Sadr's fears are more political, analysts say - he is
concerned about rival Shi'ite militias gaining strength by
taking ground in the north.
Sadr's Saraya al-Islam, or Peace Brigades, are only deployed
in and around the northern city of Samarra where the shrine of a
holy Shi'ite Imam is located.
Baghdad-based political analyst Ahmed Younis said Sadr's
speech was a clear message to Shi'ite rivals.
"It's quite a clear message for other Shi'ite armed groups
not to take on the role of government forces and control lands
under the pretext of fighting Daesh (Islamic State). Moqtada is
trying to draw a line in the sand for his rivals," he said.
Sadr's supporters in their tens of thousands waved Iraqi
flags and chanted support for their leader as he spoke.
Sadr, whose opinion holds sway over tens of thousands of
Shi'ites, including fighters who battled U.S. troops in 2006-7,
also threatened to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections,
accusing Iraq's Election Commission of bias towards some
He is calling for a new commission and a review of the
current election law, saying it allows influential parties to
maintain their grip on power.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; writing by John Davison; editing
by Richard Lough)