Parties try to force al-Sadr to disband militia

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have closed ranks to force anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to disband his Mahdi Army militia or leave politics, lawmakers and officials involved in the effort said Sunday.

Such a bold move risks a violent backlash by al-Sadr’s Shiite militia. But if it succeeds, it could cause a major realignment of Iraq’s political landscape.

The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall, the officials and lawmakers said. The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.

Al-Sadr controls 30 of the 275 parliament seats, a substantial figure but not enough to block legislation.

U.S. officials have been pressing Iraq’s government for years to disband the militias, including the Mahdi Army.

All major political parties are believed to maintain links to armed groups, although none acknowledge it. Some groups, including militias of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and al-Sadr’s chief rival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, have been integrated into the government security services.

That put them nominally under the government’s authority, although they are believed to maintain ties to the political parties and retain their command structures.

Uprisings in 2004 by al-Sadr’s militiamen ended through mediation by top Shiite clerics. Shiite leaders then attempted to bring the Sadrists into the political mainstream, offering them Cabinet posts and deferring to them on some major security issues.

But attacks by Shiite extremists continued, reportedly carried out by pro-Iranian splinter groups.

The militia issue took on new urgency after al-Maliki launched a major operation March 25 against Shiite extremists in Basra and fighting quickly spread from the southern port city to Baghdad and elsewhere.

The Sadrists believed the Basra crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before the fall elections. They insisted al-Maliki was encouraged to move against them by their chief Shiite rivals — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

U.S. and Iraqi officials insist the crackdown is directed at criminal gangs and splinter groups supported by Iran.

APresident Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said Sunday that the statement was adopted after “heated, cordial, frank and transparent discussion,” Al-Rubaie and another Sadrist lawmaker who attended objected to the call for militias to disband, he said.

Al-Sadr has called on supporters to stage a “million-strong” protest in Baghdad on Wednesday to mark the fifth anniversary of the city’s capture by U.S. troops.

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