BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr offered Thursday to help purge Iraqi security forces of militia members.
An Iraqi soldier securing a street in Basra on Wednesday.
But he also criticized the Iraqi government for denying that it sent envoys to him to discuss last week's government offensive in Basra.
The offensive sparked fighting between security forces in other Shiite cities and in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad. The clashes subsided after al-Sadr called for his followers to stand down, a pronouncement made Sunday after meetings with Iranian officials and Iraqi Shiite lawmakers in Iran.
"I advise everyone to end the sedition, to stop the bloodshed and arrests immediately," al-Sadr said Thursday in a statement read by Saleh al-Ageili, a spokesman for the Sadrist parliamentary bloc.
"And if the government cannot make infiltrators and other Baathists, terrorists, militias of parties and saboteurs surrender, we are ready to cooperate with [the government] to cleanse our army and police of them. Let the government and people be one to liberate Iraq of the occupier."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said there were no government negotiations with Shiite militias and emphasized that he didn't send an envoy to the Sadrists' headquarters in the Iraqi city of Najaf for talks.
He said he was "not consulted" by those Shiite lawmakers who traveled to Najaf to speak with al-Sadr.
But al-Ageili said the prime minister's denials were meant only "to save face."
The Iraqi government said the operation that began March 25 targeted criminals who had been carrying out indiscriminate attacks, burglaries and oil smuggling.
Although Iraqi and U.S. authorities repeatedly said militias weren't targeted, much of the fighting occurred in strongholds of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia.
A senior Iraqi official said that more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted in Basra and other hot spots during the fighting. There were others who simply took off their uniforms and joined the Shiite militias the army was battling, the official said.
A closely held U.S. military intelligence analysis of the fighting showed that Iraqi security forces controlled less than a quarter of the city, according to U.S. officials in the United States and Iraq. They said Basra's police units were deeply infiltrated by members of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.
Al-Maliki called the operation in the oil-rich southern city a success Thursday but said it exposed weaknesses in the security forces, including operational snafus and troop desertions that he said will be addressed and reviewed.
He said those who "didn't fight with their colleagues" will be sent to military courts on charges of desertion and insubordination, though he noted that "joining the army or police is not a picnic." Among the penalties those security force members will face is dismissal from the military.
The prime minister, who was in Basra overseeing the fighting in its early days, brushed off criticism that the widespread action was poorly planned, was politically motivated and failed to dislodge the renegade militias from their strongholds across the southern city.
Al-Maliki said he plans actions in other cities and Baghdad neighborhoods, such as Sadr City, Shula and Amiriya, and vowed that the military will "be 100 percent ready" when it embarks on those operations.
Sadr City and Shula are Shiite areas dominated by the Mehdi Army militia, but Amiriya is predominantly Sunni and controlled by a Sons of Iraq group -- the U.S.-backed Sunni militias.
"We will not sit quietly" while gangs hold areas captive, said al-Maliki, who emphasized that such areas should be "liberated."
Asked about the possibility of government operations in Sadr City, al-Ageili said there is a committee led by al-Sadr that is monitoring events and issues directives accordingly.
"This is solid leadership, and we will not seek an escalation," he said.
Al-Maliki also has promised a major offensive targeting al Qaeda in Iraq, a predominantly Sunni group, in the northern city of Mosul.
Al-Ageili also said al-Sadr had called for peaceful demonstrations in Sadr City after Friday prayers "to protest the campaign of raids carried out by the occupier."
A Sadr City resident said mosque loudspeakers Thursday blared the call to protest.
Al-Sadr's political movement called for millions of Iraqis to demonstrate Wednesday against the U.S. presence in Iraq, a protest that would coincide with scheduled testimony in Washington from top U.S. officials in Iraq and the anniversary of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Al-Sadr urged people to converge on Najaf, the city south of Baghdad that is holy to Shiite Muslims and where the Sadrists have their main office.
His message was all-encompassing, an address to all Iraqis: Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Arabs, "mujahedeen and the patient people" and those who've lost loved ones in the war.
The group is urging Iraqis to wave flags, demand Iraqi independence, support Iraqi unity, support "oppressed people" and do so in a way that dignifies Islam.
"It is the time to express your rejection and raise your voices loudly in Iraq's sky against the unjust occupier, the enemy of nations and humanity and against the awful massacres committed by the occupier and unjust people against our noble nation," a Sadrist statement said. E-mail to a friend
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