The 15-point statement called on all parties "to immediately disband their militias and hand over their weapons to the government ... as a condition for their participation in the political process and elections".

It also also urged parties that withdrew from the government of Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, to send their ministers back to the cabinet.

Powerful interests

The council's decisions have no force in law but are significant because they represent many of the country's most powerful political interests.

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Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, said that all members of the council had agreed to the statement except for al-Sadr's supporters.

"This aims to disarm the Sadrists, whose weapons are pointed at the occupation forces," he told the Reuters news agency, referring to the
US military.

Al-Sadr backed the prime minister's rise to power in 2006 but split with him a year ago, partly over his refusal to set a timetable for the  
withdrawal of US forces.

Al-Sadr supporters have accused al-Maliki of attempting to crush them ahead of the provincial elections in which they are expected to make big gains at the expense of the prime minister's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The group said that this was one of the reasons for the recent crackdown on Shia groups in the southern city of Basra. 

'Militia problem'

"I think the government is now enjoying the support of most political groups because it has adopted a correct approach to the militia problem," Hussein al-Falluji, an MP from parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, said.

Since 2004, several attempts have been made to convince Iraqi parties to disband the armed groups they sponsor but with limited results.

Most Iraqi political parties are believed to maintain ties to armed groups although none acknowledges maintaining a "militia".