Iraq has dismissed 1,300 troops for failing in their duties during a crackdown on gunmen in Basra, an official said Sunday, as the government vowed to flush Shiite militias out of their Baghdad bastion.
The sackings come after hundreds of Iraqi troops and police are reported to have either deserted or joined the other side during a government offensive against Shiite militias that began March 25.
"Those people did not do their duties in Basra and Kut," interior ministry spokesman Major General Abdel Karim Khalaf said referring to army offensives in the southern and central cities.
The raids which mainly targeted areas controlled by Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr sparked fighting which spread to Kut, Baghdad and other Shiite areas of Iraq.
Some 700 people were killed in the fighting before Sadr pulled his militiamen off the streets on March 30 in return for an agreement by the government to halt random raids.
Battles resumed in renewed fury in Sadr City, a Mahdi Army stronghold, on April 6 when Iraqi and U.S. forces moved tanks and armored vehicles onto the streets and began taking on militias.
Around 90 people have died in Sadr City and other Baghdad Shiite enclaves since then and although there was a lull in the fighting on Sunday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said there would be no let-up in security force operations.
"We will continue until we secure Sadr City. We will not come out, we will not give up until the people of Sadr City have a normal life," Dabbagh told AFP.
The township is still under partial curfew and residents reported sporadic gunfire on Sunday, although the heavy battles of the past few days have eased.
Dabbagh told a news conference that the security forces were not specifically targeting the Mahdi Army in its nationwide crackdown on militiamen.
"The government doesn't send its forces after any political bloc," he said. "Anyone who is carrying a weapon illegally will be prosecuted. It is not dependent on their political persuasion, whether they be in the Sadrist trend or any other bloc."
But the Sadrists accused the government of using the security forces to weaken the movement ahead of provincial elections due in October.
"This statement (by Dabbagh) shows the government is persisting in carrying out its political agenda before the elections by using the security forces for party political purposes," Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi told AFP in the shrine city of Najaf.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll told the joint news conference that those being targeted are "individuals who illegally carry weapons and launch attacks on law-abiding citizens and security forces."
Driscoll said that operations against "illegally armed gangs, extortion groups and other criminals" are continuing in Basra.
U.S. air strikes in east Baghdad, meanwhile, killed two people and set homes ablaze, injuring three civilians and two American soldiers, the US military said on Sunday.
Saturday's air strike targeted a group of people planting roadside bombs in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, which adjoins Sadr City, a military statement said.
Tensions between the Mahdi Army and the security forces have been further inflamed by the killing of senior Sadr aide Riyad al-Nuri after Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.