BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned in an interview broadcast Monday that radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s movement will be sidelined from politics unless its feared militia is disbanded.
The prime minister’s comments to CNN follow two weeks of fighting between Sadr’s Mahdi Army Shiite militia and the security forces that have killed hundreds and raised doubts over the capabilities of army and police units.
“A decision was taken … that they no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mahdi Army,” Maliki said in an interview with the television network.
Iraqi and US forces have been fighting Shiite militiamen, mostly from the Mahdi Army, since Maliki ordered a crackdown on “lawless gunmen” on March 25 in the southern city of Basra.
The fighting spread to other Shiite areas of Iraq, including Sadr City, the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad bastion, from where according to the US military “criminals” have since the crackdown been launching rocket and mortar attacks on the fortified Green Zone.
Two US soldiers and two US government employees have been killed in the attacks on the Green Zone, seat of the Iraqi government and the US embassy, while another soldier was killed Sunday by a rocket at an east Baghdad US base.
Iraqi officials said fighting raged again overnight in Sadr City, killing three people and wounding 36.
The clashes, in which 20 people died on Sunday, has brought the impoverished district of two million people to a standstill, with the main market burnt out, water in short supply and electricity non-existent, residents said.
The fighting comes just two days before a massive anti-American protest on Wednesday in Sadr City called by Sadr.
The Sadr group expects at least a million protesters to attend the demonstration on the April 9 fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime by invading US-led forces.
Maliki had initially given militiamen 72 hours when he launched the Basra crackdown and later offered a new April 8 deadline to local residents of the southern city to hand over medium and heavy weaponry in return for cash.
The fighting subsided on March 30 when Sadr called his fighters off the streets, but has continued sporadically in Basra, where eight people were killed overnight in a blast that destroyed a house, and in Sadr City.
Maliki told CNN he was determined to pursue militias across the country, including those in Sadr City.
“We will not stop until we have full control of these areas. The operation has started and will not stop until a decisive victory is achieved … a victory that will not allow these people to attack the Green Zone or other areas,” Maliki said.
Maliki conceded Iraqi forces were still far from winning control of the militias.
“Yes, confronting the militias does still need more effort. Our readiness is not at full level yet. But what is happening in Sadr City is less than what some people expected us to do. Many people expected to see a decisive victory of the Iraqi security forces,” he said.
“But this did not happen. Today again Iraqi forces went into Sadr City and are pursuing the criminal militiamen who are on the run.”
Iran, meanwhile, said on Monday it had hosted talks with an Iraqi delegation to urge “self-restraint” and bring an end to the deadly clashes which battered Basra.
Iranian foreign ministry Mohammad Ali Hosseini was asked at his weekly news conference to confirm reports that Iran had hosted talks with Iraqi factions in the holy Iranian city of Qom in a bid to end the fighting.
“An Iraqi delegation travelled to the Islamic Republic of Iran and talks were held. We called on all the parties involved to exercise self-restraint,” Hosseini replied, without specifying where the talks were held and who took part.
“The priority for the Islamic Republic of Iran is for security and stability in Iraq and it will do everything to reach these objectives,” he added.