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Iraq: Iran-backed militia to lay down arms

BAGHDAD - An Iranian-backed Shiite militia that carried out deadly attacks on U.S. troops has agreed to lay down its arms and join the political process, the Iraqi official in charge of reconciling with the country's armed groups said Friday.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's adviser for reconciliation, Amer al-Khuzaie, said the group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, has not yet turned in its arms but has agreed not to use them anymore. He welcomed the group's decision to play a constructive role in Iraqi politics and said the group plans to run in the next parliamentary elections under a new name.

"They want to join the political process ... and give up armed struggle," al-Khuzaie said. "The government will not buy up the group's weapons, but we are ready to take them if they want us to."

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A senior member of Asaib Ahl al-Haq said in an interview this week that the group wants to ally with other Shiite groups to run in provincial and parliamentary elections, but he did not say the group would disarm completely. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the group's plans.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the Righteous, is an armed group the split off from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's own political movement that was formed to fight the American presence in Iraq.

It was one of 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 a nearly nine year war.

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-Malikis' 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.

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.

Meanwhile, roadside bombs killed two Shiite pilgrims. The blasts were part of a string of explosions in Baghdad on Friday, a day after the country's bloodiest sectarian violence in more than a year left scores dead, officials said.

The new wave of attacks raised fears of a renewal of the widespread Sunni-versus-Shiite bloodshed that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war just a few years ago. While there were no claims of responsibility, attacks against Shiites are typically the work of Sunni insurgents.

At least three roadside bombs exploded in the morning in different parts of the capital, wounding 17 people in addition to the two killed, police and hospital officials said.

They hit Shiite pilgrims making their way toward the sacred city of Karbala for a holy day that draws hundreds of thousands of believers from across Iraq each year.

Several new explosions could be heard around midday. Police said they were rockets and mortar rounds. At least two buildings in northern and central Baghdad were hit, wounding 10 people, police and hospital officials said.

Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said some of the projectiles landed outside the capital's heavily protected Green Zone. He said they were intended to disrupt an annual army parade happening within and were a sign that insurgents are trying "to prove their presence."

The police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to brief the media.

A series of bombings targeting members of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority claimed the lives of at least 78 people on Thursday, marking the second large-scale attack by militants since U.S. forces pulled out last month.

The attacks occurred in the run-up to Arbaeen, a holy day that marks the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure. During this time, Shiite pilgrims — many on foot — make their way across Iraq to Karbala, south of Baghdad.

The violence in Iraq comes as the country's main factions are mired in a crisis pitting politicians from the Shiite majority now in power against the Sunni minority, which dominated government under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.