Al-Sadr Demands Troops Fired for Desertion in Basra Be Reinstated

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded Monday that the Iraqi government reinstate all security forces fired for deserting during fighting in Basra.

The statement was issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf a day after more than 1,300 soldiers and policemen were sacked for abandoning their posts or refusing to fight when clashes broke out during an offensive that began last month in the southern oil hub.

"All the brothers in the army and police who gave up their arms to their bothers (Sadrists), were only obeying their grand religious leaders and they were driven by their religious duties," the anti-U.S. cleric said.

"I call upon all concerned authorities to reconsider their decision to dismiss those people from the army and the police. I demand they be reinstated and even rewarded for their loyalty and devotion to their religion," he added.

The decision to dismiss the security forces came as the Iraqi government has ratcheted up pressure on al-Sadr to disband his Mahdi Army militia or face political isolation.

The Basra offensive — which opened on March 25 — quickly stalled amid strong resistance from the outnumbered militiamen, despite artillery and air support provided by U.S. and British forces.

During the attack more than 1,000 security troops — including a full infantry battalion — refused to fight or joined the militias, handing them weapons and vehicles.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf told reporters Sunday that the government had fired 421 policemen who have not returned to duty since fighting ended. They included 37 senior police officers ranging in rank from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general.

Khalaf said that 500 soldiers who have been absent without leave since the campaign ended on March 30, had also been dismissed and would be tried by military courts.

"Some of them were sympathetic with these lawbreakers, some refused to (go into) battle for political or national or sectarian or religious reasons," Khalaf said.

In Kut, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Baghdad that was also affected by the fighting, a further 400 policemen were also dismissed, said a senior police commander who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The failure of government forces to capture Basra despite superiority in numbers and firepower was an embarrassment to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who ordered the offensive and personally supervised it during the first week.

It also raised fresh doubts about the ability of the Iraqi forces to take over their own security so the U.S.-led troops can eventually withdraw.