Sunni fighters led by an Al Qaeda-inspired militant group expanded their offensive in a volatile western province on Saturday, capturing two strategic towns and the first border crossing with Syria to fall on the Iraqi side.

It’s the latest blow against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting for his political life even as forces beyond his control are pushing the country toward a sectarian showdown.

In a reflection of the bitter divide, about 20,000 heavily armed Shiite militiamen — eager to take on the Sunni insurgents — marched through Baghdad’s Sadr City district with assault rifles, machine-guns, multiple rocket launchers and missiles. Similar parades were held in the southern cities of Amarah and Basra, with the militants in Basra displaying field artillery pieces hauled by heavy trucks.

The Shiite militias formed in response to the current ISIS offensive could represent a dangerous wild card in the new battle for Iraq. The Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to al-Sadr, battled U.S. troops and was blamed for attacks on Sunni civilians during the height of the country’s sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.

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