BAGHDAD -- A populist Shiite leader in Iraq, Moktada al-Sadr, expressed support on Tuesday for fresh protests against Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite but his political opponent, saying that Mr. Maliki bears "full responsibility" for the unrest in the country.
As with many developments in Iraq, the timing and venue of Mr. Sadr's comments to reporters were as notable as their meaning. He spoke in Najaf, one of the holiest cities of his Shiite sect, just as Iraq ended its bloodiest year since 2009, a reflection of unabated ethnic, sectarian and political tensions among the country's Kurdish, Arab, Sunni and Shiite populations.
Several times during the gathering, Mr. Sadr directed his remarks at Mr. Maliki, who has taken recent steps that suggested he was asserting greater control over many aspects of the government and that prompted fears he was cracking down on his political opponents. Mr. Sadr's remarks could indicate that he is trying to test the political waters or possible support from the street before Iraq's provincial elections, which are scheduled for the spring.
Mr. Sadr also tried to assert broader credibility for the anti-Maliki protests by comparing them to the movements that have swept many Arab countries in the past few years, calling for new government leaders and better representation.
"The Iraqi spring is coming," Mr. Sadr said, in a tone that implied a warning to Mr. Maliki.
"We are with the demonstrators, and Parliament must be with them, not against them," he said. "The legitimate demands of the demonstrators, by which people know what they want, should be met."
Mr. Sadr was careful to appear moderate and to say he was speaking for all Iraqis in his remarks, which his media office distributed to journalists throughout the country. He said he supported the widespread demonstrations as long as they were peaceful and did not seek to create divisions, driving the last point home by adding that he was willing to go to Sunni-dominated Anbar Province to take part in protests.
Demonstrations against Mr. Maliki's Shiite-dominated government erupted in Sunni areas last month in response to a raid by security forces on the office and home of the Sunni finance minister, Rafie al-Issawi. In one protest last week, tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims blocked Iraq's main trade route to neighboring Syria and Jordan, Reuters reported.
Aside from reaction in the street, the raid had immediate political fallout. Mr. Issawi described it as a "pre-election blow" intended to weaken Mr. Maliki's rivals. Leaders from the Sunni-dominated bloc, Iraqiya, threatened to pull out of the government and called for a no-confidence vote on Mr. Maliki.
Mr. Sadr's voice has now added his voice to the discord that has left the country in disarray a full year after the withdrawal of American forces left seemingly intractable problems among political factions and ethnic groups.
Tensions between the Kurds in the north and the government in Baghdad, who were already at odds over sharing oil revenues, have risen as soldiers squared off with Kurdish militias after Mr. Maliki sought to consolidate his control over security in the north.
Further political uncertainty occurred at the end of 2012 when the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, suffered a stroke and was flown to Germany for treatment.
Sunni Arab and Kurdish officials have accused Mr. Maliki of trying to monopolize power before. In September, Tariq al-Hashimi, the vice president of Iraq and a prominent Sunni Muslim, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in absentia on accusations that he oversaw death squads. Sunni supporters accused the Shiite-led government of trying to sideline them.
The discord has translated into bloodshed. While attacks have not been as frequent or widespread as they were during the height of the insurgency, Iraqis marked the end of 2012 with a grim milestone.
Iraq Body Count, a nonprofit group that tallies casualties, said Tuesday that civilian deaths from attacks in Iraq rose to at least 4,471 in 2012 from 4,136 in 2011, the first annual rise since 2009. Deaths during the final two weeks were still being tallied.
"Over all, 2012 has been more consistent with an entrenched conflict than with any transformation in the security situation for Iraqis in the first year since the formal withdrawal of U.S. troops," the group said.
Yasir Ghazi reported from Baghdad, and Christine Hauser from New York.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.