Al-Maliki gives Mahdi Army blunt choice: disarm or face American onslaught

Iraq's prime minister has told Mahdi Army militiamen they must surrender their arms or face an all-out assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, senior Iraqi officials said Wednesday, revealing a pledge Washington wanted to hear as American and Iraqi troops prepared a fresh operation to end the bloody sectarian war gripping Baghdad.

The blunt message was particularly significant given that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi leader, previously had blocked several U.S. attempts to crack down on the military wing of radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, now one of the most powerful players in Iraq.

"Prime Minister al-Maliki has told everyone that there will be no escape from attack. The government has told the Sadrists (the political movement that supports the Mahdi Army), if we want to build a state we have no other choice but to attack armed groups," a senior Shiite legislator and close al-Maliki adviser said.

While the militia has been noticeably less active since the Dec. 30 hanging of Saddam Hussein, there was no assurance the threatened offensive would intimidate the fighters who have only grown stronger in numbers, arms and sophistication since they battled U.S. forces to a standstill in the Shiite holy city of Najaf and in Baghdad's Sadr City in 2004.

The Iraqi military is bringing two brigades from northern Iraq and one from the south to increase troop strength for the new Baghdad security push that al-Maliki announced on Saturday. He immediately set it in motion with an attack on Sunni insurgents in Haifa Street in central Baghdad. Thirty suspected insurgents were killed then and 50 more were reported killed Tuesday in a nearly day-long assault there backed by U.S. troops, fighter jets and attack helicopters.

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