(Reuters) - The Iraqi government has sacked 1,300 soldiers and policemen for their poor performance during clashes last month with Shi'ite militias in the south of the country, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.
The move was an acknowledgement of failures in an offensive against the militias, which started in the southern oil hub of Basra and spread across the south and to Baghdad, triggering Iraq's worst fighting since the first half of 2007.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim al-Khalaf said more than 900 were fired in Basra and the rest in the southern province of Wasit, which also saw clashes after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched the crackdown.
Iraqi officials had previously acknowledged that 1,000 soldiers failed to fight in the offensive, which was the biggest operation the government had launched without backing from large U.S. or British ground units.
The fighting, which has continued over the past week in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, brought an end to a long trend of declining violence and raised doubts about the competence and readiness of Iraqi forces.
U.S. commander General David Petraeus told Congress last week that he learned of the Basra operation only days before it was launched and that he believed it was poorly planned.
Sadr City was calmer on Sunday. Hospitals in the Baghdad slum said they had received no dead or wounded during the quietest night in weeks.
More than 100 people have been killed in Sadr City in the past week since U.S. and Iraqi troops launched an offensive into parts of the slum controlled by Sadr's black-masked fighters.
Twenty U.S. soldiers have died across Iraq since last Sunday, the deadliest week for U.S. troops this year and one of the bloodiest since September 2007.
The fighting has highlighted the fragility of security gains seen in Iraq since mid-2007, when additional U.S. troops were sent to restore order amid an upturn in insurgent attacks.
A Reuters reporter who spent the night in Sadr City said it had been relatively quiet overnight, with only sporadic gunfire.
Iraqi forces appeared to be blocking some road exits from Sadr City on Sunday, causing traffic to back up. A blockade of the slum was mostly lifted on Saturday after a nearly three week car ban that kept residents trapped in the battle zone.
A U.S. military spokesman described the situation as "calmer" and said there had been no new reports of killings.
"We didn't have any casualties overnight, but we don't want to get too optimistic," said Qasim al-Mudalal, director of the Imam Ali hospital. "We hope this will continue, that we get some breathing space and the suffering of the city comes to an end."
In a statement issued by Sadr's office in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf on Saturday, the anti-American cleric showed no sign he was ready to call off his fighters.
"You (infidels) will always be an enemy and you will remain so until the last drop of my blood," Sadr said in the statement, issued in response to comments the previous day from U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates had said Sadr would not be treated as a foe by the United States as long as he played a peaceful role in politics.
The United States has 160,000 troops in Iraq, 20,000 of whom are due to head home by July, but President George W. Bush has resisted pressure from Democrats to commit to further cuts.
Sadrists say Maliki's crackdown is aimed at preventing them from challenging the prime minister's supporters in provincial elections this year.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters that a draft law governing the elections, which are scheduled for October, would explicitly bar participation by any groups with armed factions, a move that will anger Sadr's followers.
In an incident on Saturday in the New Baghdad district, adjacent to Sadr City, a U.S. Apache helicopter fired two missiles at militants placing roadside bombs.
One missile killed two militants but the second "overshot", setting alight a U.S. Humvee vehicle and nearby houses, the U.S. military said. Two U.S. soldiers and three civilians were wounded and the "misfire" is under investigation.
"(These) events are unfortunate and our apologies go out to those innocent civilians who were affected," Colonel Bill Buckner, a military spokesman, said in a statement.