Maliki said: "A decision was taken ... that they no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mahdi Army.
 
"We will not stop until we have full control of these areas. The operation has started and will not stop until a decisive victory is achieved ... a victory that will not allow these people to attack the Green Zone or other areas."

The Green Zone, a highly defended area of Baghdad, where the Iraqi government and the US embassy are situated, has come under sustained attack by rockets and mortar rounds fired for the past two weeks, allegedly from Sadr City.  
 
Three US soldiers were killed on Sunday in such attacks in Baghdad, including two in the Green Zone, while two US government employees were killed in the first wave of attacks.

Seeking advice

According to an al-Sadr aide, if religious leaders obey al-Maliki's demands, al-Sadr himself will order the disbanding of the Mahdi Army.

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Salah al-Obeidi said: "The Mahdi Army receives orders from Sadr and from the highest religious clerics whom he consults.

"If these clerics ask him to disband Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army], for sure the order will be obeyed."

Obeidi also said that he had "no idea" whether Sadr had initiated any talks with the clerics.

However, Falah Shenshal, a member of parliament from the Sadrist bloc, called al-Maliki's ultimatum an "unjustified escalation".
 
He said: '"This is unjustified escalation from the PM. [Contesting] elections is a right guaranteed by the constitution and no one has the right to prevent anyone.

"The Mahdi Army is not a militia, but it is an army of belief and principles and they carried arms against the occupation and their aim is to liberate Iraq. And they have personal weapons."
 
Shenshal also said that al-Maliki should "clean" the security forces of the Dawa party whom he leads, as well as the Badr Brigade [associated with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council]." 
 
''This is a political war against the Sadrists and the aim is clear," he said. 

"The Sadrists are the only obstacle in front of the Federalism [plan for Iraq] and the provincial elections are near and they do not want us to participate ... they are trying to foil the plans for holding the demonstration [against the US presence] planned on April 9th.'' 
   
'Not ready'

Al-Maliki said that Iraqi forces were still "far away" from gaining control of the militias.
  
He said: "Yes, confronting the militias does still need more effort. Our readiness is not at full level yet. But what is happening in Sadr City is less than what some people expected us to do.

Local residents say Monday's blast was
caused by a US air raid [AFP]
"Many people expected to see a decisive victory of the Iraqi security forces ... but this did not happen. Today again Iraqi forces went into Sadr City and are pursuing the criminal militiamen who are on the run."

Meanwhile, in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, at least eight people were killed in a blast, which local residents said was caused by a US air raid.

Police and residents said the raid occurred in the Hayy al-Asdiqa neighbourhood and a house was reportedly destroyed.

According to a US military statement, "coalition forces and Iraqi security forces were not involved in the incident".

US fighter jets have carried out several bombing raids during clashes in Basra for a week after al-Maliki cracked down on the Mahdi Army on March 25.

The fighting spread to eastern Baghdad and other Shia areas of Iraq, killing at least 700 people and wounding hundreds.