By ADAM SCHRECK and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
BAGHDAD - A decision by a Shiite militia to transform itself from an armed, anti-American movement into a viable political force could complicate Iraq's political crisis and strengthen Iran's clout in this country as U.S. influence wanes.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has welcomed the recent decision by Asaib Ahl al-Haq to lay down its arms and join the political process. But bringing the former militants into the fold may alienate the Sunni minority and increase tensions between competing Shiite groups.
Al-Maliki, who is widely believed to have played an active role in encouraging the militia to transform, may now gain an important ally that could also lessen his dependence on radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc. Al-Sadr considers Asaib Ahl al-Haq a disloyal faction that broke away from his own anti-American militia several years ago.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the Righteous, believes it played an important role in resisting the American presence in Iraq and that it now deserves some political payback. The group is thought to have fewer than 1,000 armed militiamen, backed by tens of thousands of supporters. An Iraqi close to the extremist group said last year that it relies on Iran for roughly $5 million in cash and weapons each month.
It is unclear how committed the group is to disarming entirely. Despite agreeing to renounce violence in late December, its members have not handed over their weapons, according to the Iraqi official in charge of reconciling with the country's armed groups.
"The government will not buy up the group's weapons, but we are ready to take them if they want us to," said the government official, Amer al-Khuzaie.
A senior member of Asaib Ahl al-Haq said in an interview this week that the group wants to ally itself with other Shiite groups to run in provincial and parliamentary elections. But he stopped short of saying the group would disarm completely, saying its members would "do its best to secure Shiite areas."
Qais al-Khazali, the group's leader, was also circumspect when reached by The Associated Press late Friday.
"The issue of handing over our weapons will be discussed with the Iraqi government sometime in the future, away from the media," he said.
In a brief phone interview, al-Khazali also said the group is willing to turn over the body of kidnapped British bodyguard Alan McMenemy, though he wouldn't say when that might happen.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades were among a group of Shiite militias backed by Iran that carried out lethal attacks against U.S. bases in June, the deadliest month in two years for American forces in Iraq.
U.S. troops completed their pullout last month after America's nearly nine-year war.
There is little sign that the Hezbollah Brigades intends to follow Asaib Ahl al-Haq's path. The Hezbollah group, which is believed to be funded and trained by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force special operations wing, issued a statement Dec. 30 denying it was joining any national reconciliation process. It said it would not challenge the Iraqi government directly but made no mention of plans to give up arms.
A Shiite lawmaker in Baghdad said bringing Shiite militants into the political process will only strengthen Iran's influence in Iraq.
"Iran has full control of these armed groups and Iranian officials know how and when to manipulate them to exert pressure on the Iraqi government," he said on condition his name not be used because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq announced its independence from al-Sadr's movement in 2008 and turned down several calls by the cleric to rejoin his group.
Relations between the Sadrists, who are a key component of al-Maliki's' Shiite-dominated government, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq remain strained. Al-Sadr recently lashed out at the group's followers, calling them disloyal. He has also accused them of having Iraqi blood on their hands - though al-Sadr's Mahdi Army organized death squads that kidnapped and killed countless Sunni civilians during the height of the war.
Al-Khazali, Asaib Ahl al-Haq's leader, "is a bona fide political and religious rival to Muqtada al-Sadr," said analyst Michael Knights, Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"At the moment, the Maliki government is leaning toward Muqtada because he holds 40 seats in parliament and AAH holds none. That could change," he said.
If Asaib Ahl al-Haq does organize itself into a more traditional political party, it could damage al-Sadr's own political ambitions and weaken his standing in the coalition government.
Hadi Jalo, a Baghdad-based political analyst, said the tension between al-Sadr and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq could devolve into low-level violence in Shiite areas as the two groups compete for power.
"Even if that is the case, the Iranians will be the main beneficiaries because they will take on a bigger role as mediator by making the struggling Shiite groups sit together to settle their differences," he said.
Any indication that Iran is wielding greater control over political decisions in Baghdad will only exacerbate sectarian tensions that have risen following the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Sunni lawmaker Falah Zaidan said Shiite militias are not welcome in Iraqi politics.
"They come with Iran's agenda, which is a dangerous one," he said.
Iraq's minority Sunnis, who were the biggest beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein's rule, feel increasingly threatened by what they see as efforts by al-Maliki to consolidate power and sideline them politically.
Al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the country's top Sunni politician just as the last American troops were leaving last month. The Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, remains holed up in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north - effectively out of reach of state security forces.
Most members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, al-Maliki's main political rivals, are boycotting parliament sessions and Cabinet meetings, paralyzing a broad-based unity government.
What are almost certainly Sunni insurgents are using the political upheaval to launch a new wave of deadly attacks aimed at Shiites.
Roadside bombs killed two Shiite pilgrims early Friday. Around midday, a volley of rocket and mortars shook the Iraqi capital.
The attacks came a day after a wave of bombings targeting Shiites killed at least 78 people, making Thursday the deadliest day in Iraq in more than a year.
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.