BAGHDAD – Iraq’s government moved Sunday to restore discipline within the ranks of the security forces, sacking more than 1,300 soldiers and policemen who deserted during recent fighting against Shiite militias in Basra.
At the same time, Iraq’s Cabinet ratcheted up the pressure on anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by approving draft legislation barring political parties with militias from participating in upcoming provincial elections.
Al-Sadr, who heads the country’s biggest militia, the Mahdi Army, has been under intense pressure from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also a Shiite, to disband the Mahdi Army or face political isolation.
Al-Sadr’s followers are eager to take part in the local elections because they believe they can take power away from rival Shiite parties in the vast, oil-rich Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.
And in a new move to stem the flow of money to armed groups, the government ordered a crackdown on militiamen controlling state-run and private gas stations, refineries and oil distribution centers.
It is believed that gas stations and distribution centers, especially in eastern Baghdad and some southern provinces, are covertly controlled by Shiite militiamen dominated by the Mahdi Army.
The failure of government forces to capture Basra despite superiority in numbers and firepower was an embarrassment to al-Maliki, who ordered the offensive and supervised it during the first week.
It also raised questions on whether Iraq’s mostly Shiite army and police can confront Shiite militias, including Iranian-backed “special groups,” which the U.S. command now considers the greatest threat to Iraqi democracy with the diminishing influence of al-Qaida in Iraq.