TEHRAN (FNA)- Young Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr will be sidelined from politics unless he disbands his militia, Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki warned on Monday as fresh fighting erupted in Baghdad.
The prime minister’s comments, broadcast on CNN, came after a deadly fortnight of clashes between Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and the security forces which left hundreds dead.
“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,” the Iraqi leader said.
The Sadr movement quickly dismissed Maliki’s warning.
“To participate in an election is a right guaranteed by the constitution. We are the ones to decide whether to participate or not,” Liwa Sumaysim, head of Sadr group’s political bureau, told AFP in the holy city of Najaf.
“There is no constitutional provision that allows the government to take such a step.”
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 militias have since the crackdown launched rocket and mortar attacks on the fortified Green Zone that killed two soldiers and two US government staffers. 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, have 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 say.
The latest clashes come two days before a massive anti-American protest Wednesday in Sadr City called by the young leader.
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. The heavy clashes that rocked Iraq subsided on March 30 when Sadr called his fighters off the streets, but have 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.
“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,” he 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,” he said.
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 Spokesman Seyed 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.
The US military reported Monday that two US soldiers were killed in Iraq attacks, including one in eastern Baghdad during a “route-clearing patrol” Sunday.
The other soldier died Sunday from wounds sustained in a roadside bomb attack in Diyala province.