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Clashes left dozens dead in Baghdad (AFP)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki says a government ultimatum against militia factions is an attempt to pressure the movement of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Imam Al-Mahdi Army.
Al-Maliki says al-Sadr's Shi'ite movement will be barred from taking part in the political process and elections unless the Al-Mahdi Army is disbanded immediately. Provincial elections in Iraq are due by October.
Al-Maliki's remarks bring definition to a call by Iraq's Political Council on National Security for all political factions to disband their militias before the local elections.
Agreed on by President Jalal Talabani, al-Maliki, both vice presidents, and the heads of several political blocs, the statement was crafted on April 5 at a Baghdad conference chaired by Talabani.
The statement did not mention the Al-Mahdi Army by name. But even before al-Maliki announced that the militia was the target of the ultimatum, the statement had been widely seen as an attempt to isolate al-Sadr and his militant supporters. In fact, the radical cleric's populist movement was the only political bloc to reject the statement.
The government's statement called upon "all parties and political blocs to disband their militias immediately, handing their weapons to the government and then shifting to civilian activities as a precondition for taking part in the political process and the next elections."
The statement also calls for loyalty to the Baghdad government by all political factions -- despite violence that has raged in the southern port city of Al-Basrah and other predominantly Shi'ite areas of Iraq.
For six days last month, the Al-Mahdi Army fought intense battles with Iraqi security forces in Al-Basrah and other Shi'ite areas. After hundreds were killed -- reportedly mostly Al-Mahdi fighters -- the fighting subsided briefly when al-Sadr ordered his militia to respect a cease-fire.
But fighting broke out again on April 6 in the Sadrist stronghold of Al-Sadr City, a Shi'ite neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad, after the ultimatum was announced. Some 22 people were reported killed and 50 wounded.
Prior to the government's ultimatum, al-Sadr called for a massive anti-U.S. protest in the capital on April 9. That date is significant among Iraqis as it marks the fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime by the U.S.-led forces that invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Meanwhile, security concerns are high in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which has come under sustained rocket and mortar fire in recent weeks. At least two U.S. soldiers were killed by rocket attacks on the Green Zone overnight.
The latest violence comes as U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. commander General David Petraeus prepare to testify to the U.S. Congress on April 9 about the security situation in Iraq.
Ahead of that testimony, U.S. experts in Washington have been warning that the United States faces the risk of a costly, open-ended quagmire in Iraq because of the lack of political progress in Baghdad.
compiled from agency reports