Iraq approves measure barring militia-linked parties

Follows PM Maliki's threats to prevent al-Sadr's followers from participating in local vote unless he disbands Mahdi Army militia.

Nouri al-Maliki 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nouri al-Maliki 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Iraqi Cabinet on Sunday approved for submission to parliament a measure barring political parties with militias from participating in upcoming provincial elections - the latest step in government bid to isolate radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had threatened to prevent al-Sadr's followers from participating in the local vote unless he disbands his Mahdi Army militia. The Cabinet agreed to add language to a draft election bill that would prevent parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in the vote, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said, without singling out any group by name. He said the draft amendment would be sent for consideration to the 275-member parliament within the next two days. No date has been set for the legislative body to take up the issue. Al-Sadr controls 30 parliament seats, a substantial figure but not enough to block legislation. The cleric's followers are eager for elections, hoping to take power away from rival Shiite parties in the vast, oil-rich Shiite heartland of southern Iraq. All major political parties are believed to maintain links to armed groups, although none acknowledge it. Some groups, including militias of 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 puts them nominally under the government's authority, although they are believed to maintain ties to the political parties and retain their command structures. The militia issue has taken on new urgency after al-Maliki launched a major operation March 25 against Shiite extremists in the southern city of Basra and fighting quickly spread to Baghdad's Sadr City district. The Sadrists believed the Basra crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before the elections, which are expected on Oct. 1. US and Iraqi officials have insisted the crackdown is directed at criminal gangs and splinter groups supported by Iran. Al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets March 30 under a deal brokered in Iran. But the truce left the militia intact and armed and did not address the long-term threat. A controversial law paving the way for voters to choose new leaders of Iraq's 18 provinces was approved last month under strong US pressure, but only after agreement was reached for amendments to be considered at a later date. The Bush administration has pressed Iraqi leaders to overcome their differences and take advantage of a lull in violence to make progress in power-sharing deals to heal sectarian and ethnic divisions.