Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has warned influential Shiite-militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr to disarm his militia or suffer being banned from elections and politics. This was the first time the prime minister singled out al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Aya Batrawy has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
In a strong message to the influential leader Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the Mahdi Army will have to disband if al-Sadr's group wants to field candidates for the upcoming elections that will likely redistribute power in Iraq.
The prime minister's statement in a CNN interview marked the first time he publicly called for the disarmament of the Mahdi Army. Mr. Maliki, a Shia, took office in 2006 with al-Sadr's support. The cleric later pulled his movement from the government.
After Mr. Maliki called for the disbandment of the Mehdi Army, a top aid to the Shiite cleric said al-Sadr will consult senior Shiite religious leaders in Iraq and Iran and disarm the influential militia if they instruct him to do so.
Saturday, a top leadership council called for Iraqi parties to disband their militias or risk being barred from taking part in elections and participating in political life. The "Political Council for National Unity" also urged parties that have withdrawn from the government to rejoin the Cabinet.
Al-Sadr supporters were quick to respond that the prime minister has no constitutional power to interfere with elections. They said new language in a draft election bill that would ban parties that operate militias from fielding candidates is a direct attempt to sideline al-Sadr.
Iraqi political expert and professor Haidar Saaid said one of the main problems facing Iraq today is that militias continue to operate independently of the government and sometimes directly against it.
He said all militias, including the Mahdi Army, must disband. I see the biggest problem for Iraq is that we do not have a government with sole power. There are groups fighting outside the government that are influencing people's freedom and movement, said Haidar.
Iraqi forces raided the cleric's stronghold Sunday in the Baghdad area of Sadr City. This sparked heavy fighting after a week of relative calm when the cleric called his militias off the street. Hospitals reported that at least 25 people died and more than 90 were wounded in the fighting.
Mr. Maliki said in the broadcast interview that his government has opened the door for confrontation and will not stop until they are in full control of those areas.
Meanwhile, Iran says the United States has requested a fourth round of talks with the Islamic Republic regarding security in Iraq. The last official meeting between the two sides happened in July of last year.
As Iran's influence in Iraq continues to grow, Washington accuses Iran of arming militias that attack Iraqi and U.S. forces in Iraq.