/ 7 April 2008

Iraq’s leader threatens to bar cleric from vote

Iraq’s prime minister has raised the stakes in his showdown with followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, saying in an interview broadcast on Monday they would be barred from elections unless their militia disbanded.

The comments followed raids on Sunday by security forces into the cleric’s Baghdad stronghold, the slum of Sadr City, which brought heavy fighting back to the capital after a week of relative calm when al-Sadr called his militia off the streets.

”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 Mehdi Army,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an interview with CNN.

It was the first time al-Maliki had singled out al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia by name and ordered it to disband. He said government troops would continue a crackdown — first launched in the southern city of Basra late last month — in Sadr City.

”Solving the problem comes in no other way than dissolving the Mehdi Army,” al-Maliki said. ”We have opened the door for confrontation, a real confrontation with these gangs, and we will not stop until we are in full control of these areas.”

The ultimatum comes at a sensitive time, just two days before al-Sadr has called a million followers on to the streets of the capital for a mass protest against the United States’s presence in Iraq, and a day before the top US officials in Baghdad are due to report to Congress on progress in the war.

The US military commander, General David Petraeus, is expected to recommend a pause in US force levels once an initial cut of 20 000 troops is completed in July.

The threat to drive al-Sadr’s millions of supporters out of the political process deepens a divide that has already split Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and led to the worst fighting since extra US troops arrived last year.

Al-Sadr’s followers are due this year to participate for the first time in elections for powerful provincial government posts and are widely expected to oust less-popular Shi’ite parties that back al-Maliki in the country’s largely Shi’ite south.

”No one can intervene in the Mehdi Army; only those who established it and the religious leaders,” al-Sadr spokesperson Salah al-Ubaidi said.

Renewed fighting

Five US soldiers were killed on Sunday in the renewed fighting, including three killed and 31 wounded in strikes with mortars bombs or rockets that crashed across Baghdad.

One of those strikes killed two US soldiers and wounded 17 inside the heavily fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound, where personnel at the world’s largest US embassy are now required to carry body armour and helmets.

Al-Maliki’s crackdown on the Mehdi Army in Basra late last month triggered uprisings across Baghdad and southern Iraq, home to most of the country’s oil output. Although government forces made little headway, al-Sadr called his militia off the streets. But US and Iraqi forces have continued to surround Sadr City.

Iraqi forces moved into southern parts of Sadr City on Sunday. Hospital sources said at least 25 people died and more than 90 were wounded in the fresh fighting.

US forces said helicopters fired at least two Hellfire missiles into the slum on Sunday, killing nine ”criminals”.

On Saturday, al-Maliki received the backing from all of Iraq’s major parties apart from the Sadrists for a statement calling for all militia to disarm. That statement did not mention the Mehdi Army by name.

Al-Sadr formed the Mehdi Army in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq. The militia rose up twice against US forces in 2004 but helped install al-Maliki in power after an election in 2005. Al-Sadr broke with al-Maliki last year, partly over the government’s refusal to set a timetable for a US withdrawal. — Reuters