BAGHDAD — Iraq's government moved Sunday to restore discipline within the ranks of the security forces, sacking more than 1,300 soldiers and policemen who deserted during recent fighting against Shiite militias in southern Iraq.
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 questions about whether Iraq's mostly Shiite army and police can confront Shiite militias, including Iranian-backed "special groups," which the U.S. command now considers the greatest threat to Iraqi democracy with the diminishing influence of al-Qaida in Iraq.
During the Basra attack last month, more than 1,000 security troops refused to fight or joined the militias, handing them weapons and vehicles.
The government has fired 421 policemen who have not returned to duty since fighting ended, the Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said Sunday in Basra.
He said 500 soldiers who have been absent without leave since the campaign ended March 30 had been dismissed and would be tried by military courts.
In Kut, a city 100 miles southeast of Baghdad that was also affected by the fighting, 400 police officers were dismissed, a senior police commander said.
Cleric pressured: Iraq's Cabinet ratcheted up the pressure on anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by approving draft legislation barring political parties with militias from participating in provincial elections. Sadr heads the Mahdi Army.