NAJAF, Iraq, Oct 24 (Reuters) US officials said today the Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which has launched two uprisings against US forces in Iraq, must be brought under control.
Sunni leaders and US officials blame the Mehdi Army for sectarian killings that have pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Washington has demanded several times it be disarmed.
''This Mehdi Army militia group has to be brought under control,'' US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told a joint news conference with General George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq.
''It has to be decommissioned, demobilised and reintegrated like other militias and, as I've said before, the prime minister has a timeline of developing a plan by the end of the year and we support that.'' Speaking in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, Sadr urged his followers not to fight fellow Muslims and Iraqis, and said his ''sole enemy'' was the US occupying force.
''I disavow and firmly forbid any fighting between Shi'ites, Shi'ites and Sunnis and Iraqis. Our goal is to remove the ghost of death,'' he said referring to American troops in a speech to mark Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
''My sole enemy is the occupation and Sunni extremists.'' Under US pressure, Maliki has repeatedly pledged to disband all militias, a step American officials say is key to reducing violence that is killing more than 100 people a day.
But militias are tied to political parties in Maliki's coalition and moving against them could weaken his five-month-old government.
Just last week US arrested a senior Sadr aide suspected of involvement in violence, only to release him the following day on Maliki's request.
Maliki has held US forces back from conducting security sweeps in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Mehdi Army stronghold, saying he favours a political rather than a military solution.
Dominant factions from the Shi'ite majority community have shown no haste in disbanding their armed wings, which they say are needed to provide protection against Sunni militant groups such as al Qaeda.
Reuters AB DB2224