BAGHDAD -- Followers of hardline cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raised the stakes Sunday in the showdown with Iraq's government, refusing to disband their militia. The U.S. military said 40 Shiite militants were killed in fierce fighting in southern Iraq.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has demanded that al-Sadr disband his Mahdi Army, the country's biggest Shiite militia, or his followers will not be allowed to run in provincial elections this fall.
Al-Sadr's followers, who control 30 of the 275 parliament seats, rejected that demand Sunday and instead called for an end to U.S.-Iraqi military operations in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the Mahdi Army, and Shula, another Shiite district of the capital.
"All must know that disbanding the Mahdi Army means the end of al-Maliki's government," Sadrist lawmaker Fawzi Akram told reporters.
He called the government campaign against the Mahdi Army a "filthy military and media campaign" planned and supported by the Americans. He urged the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and human rights groups to intervene.
"Random airstrikes, killings and bloodletting will not help but rather will increase hatred and enmity," he said, adding that if operations continue "all options are open for us."
That could include the formal scrapping of a unilateral truce al-Sadr called last August -- a move that American officials credit with helping dramatically reduce violence over the last year.
Since a crackdown in the southern city of Basra began March 25, that truce is in tatters, with fighting in the Baghdad area and scattered clashes still underway throughout the Shiite south.
The U.S. military announced Sunday that U.S.-backed Iraqi soldiers killed 40 militiamen and arrested 40 more in fighting this weekend near Nasiriyah, a Shiite city 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
A U.S. statement said the fighting broke out Saturday when "criminal militia members" attacked Iraqi security forces. Iraqi troops with U.S. special operations advisers counterattacked the militiamen in a local Sadrist office, where they found various weapons including Iranian-made penetrator bombs, the statement said.
Al-Sadr accused U.S. and Iraqi forces of "murdering" the "faithful brothers" by "brutal means" in the Nasiriyah fighting and demanded an investigation.
The anti-American cleric has accused the government of exploiting his August truce to crack down on his political movement and warned Saturday that he would declare "open war" if the campaign against him did not stop.
Al-Sadr's statement was broadcast in Sadr City on mosque loudspeakers, raising fears of more bloodshed among the district's 2.5 million people.