BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s political leadership on Saturday called on all parties to disband their militias before provincial elections this year, an apparent attempt to isolate the populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The political council of national security, which comprises the president, the prime minister and the heads of political blocs in parliament, issued a 15-point statement at a late night news conference in Baghdad.
It came after fighting last week between Iraqi security forces and Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia killed hundreds of people in southern Iraq and Baghdad.
A key demand in the statement was for all parties and political blocs to dissolve their militias immediately and hand in their weapons. The statement did not mention any militias by name, but Sadr appeared to be the target.
“They should shift to civilian activities as a precondition for taking part in the political process and the next elections,” said the statement, read out at the news conference which was chaired by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
The political council said it would stand firmly with the Shi’ite-led government in any confrontation with militias.
Sadr’s movement holds 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. Talabani said all members of the council had agreed to the 15-point statement except for the Sadrists.
Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament, said the statement was an attempt to corner the Sadrist faction.
“This aims to disarm the Sadrists, whose weapons are pointed at the occupation forces,” he told Reuters, referring to the U.S. military.
Provincial elections are due by October.
The Sadrists, who boycotted the last polls in 2005, are vying for control of the mainly Shi’ite, oil-producing south with a powerful rival and supporter of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Sadrists accuse Maliki and the Supreme Council of trying to crush them ahead of the elections in which they are expected to make big gains at the expense of the Council, which controls most local authorities in the south.
Maliki, a fellow Shi’ite, ordered a crackdown on militias in the southern city of Basra early last week, but his army faced stiff resistance from the Mehdi Army. U.S. and British forces had to launch air and artillery strikes to support Iraqi troops.
The 15-point statement capped a week of government threats and then apparent attempts to placate Sadr, whose militia comprises tens of thousands of fighters.
On Friday for example, Maliki said his security forces would stop arresting militiamen if they gave up their weapons. The day before he had threatened raids on Sadr strongholds in Baghdad.
Maliki had been increasingly uncompromising toward the Sadrists, who backed the prime minister’s rise to power in 2006 but split with him a year ago, partly over his refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Last week’s bloodshed exposed a deep rift within Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community and served as a reminder of the instability after months of security improvements.
In fresh violence, gunmen shot dead an Iraqi priest in a drive-by shooting in central Baghdad, police said. Priest Adel Yousif was gunned down near his home in central Baghdad’s Karrada district.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of Iraq’s largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholics, told Reuters that Yousif was a member of the Syrian Orthodox church.
Delly said Iraqi Christians were shocked by the slaying, which follows the kidnap and murder of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul and other attacks on Christians in recent months.
“We are praying and asking God for security in Iraq. What can we do?” Delly said.
Additional reporting by Aws Qusay, Peter Graff and Wisam Mohammed