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Iraq Dimisses 1,300 Soldiers After Basra Campaign

The Iraqi government has dismissed 1,300 soldiers and policemen who deserted or refused to fight during last month’s Shiite against Shite battles in Basra, the government said Sunday.
More than 1,000 members of the security forces had laid down their weapons during the fight which was a campaign to restore law and order to Basra, which is a strategic and oil-rich city, reported the New York Times. Many of the men refused to fight for political, national, sectarian or religious reasons, General Khalaf told The Associated Press in Basra.
The majority of Iraqi soldiers and police are Shiites. Many of the government troops were said to have been reluctant to confront fellow Shiites in battle, reported the Star Tribune.
The Basra campaign was widely criticized as poorly planned after it failed to disarm Shiite militias, in particular the Mahdi Army loyal to the radical anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, reported the New York Times.
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, reported the Star Tribune.
Sadrists say Prime Minister Maliki and his American and Iraqi allies are using the pursuit of criminals as a pretext to weaken the Sadrist movement before coming elections, reported the New York Times. Yet the Iraqi government is being careful to portray the crackdown as an operation against criminals and illegally armed militias and not against Mr. Sadr’s forces, although the Mahdi Army is the most powerful armed force in Sadr City.
Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said he would not say “how many days or how many months? the government troops would continue their operations in Sadr City, but said “they will not come out until they are finished.?
Although clashes in Basra largely petered out after al-Sadr's order on March 30 for his militiamen to stand down under a deal brokered in Iran, fighting in Baghdad has continued, reported the Star Tribune. There have been daily gunbattles in Baghdad's main Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City between militants and Iraqi and U.S. forces, which have used helicopters and unmanned drones to pound the insurgents from the air.
Washington maintains that as the Iraqi forces increase their capabilities, they will replace U.S. troops providing security in much of the country. But last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that future U.S. troop withdrawals will go more slowly than had originally been hoped for.