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Iraqi foreign minister: Al-Sadr threats 'unacceptable'

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Sunday sternly rebuked Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's latest threats..

Zebari said on CNN that al-Sadr's Friday claim that he is establishing a new fighting force to battle U.S. troops in Iraq "unacceptable."

"The Americans are there with the consent and the approval of the Iraqi elected government," he said. "Americans are there. They're our friends. They're sacrificing. So, therefore, whatever happens to them, actually, we should feel that pain. And this is unacceptable."

Over the weekend, Iraqi government troops prepared a new push against "outlaws" in the southern province of Maysan, north of Basra near the Iranian border. They may trade medium and heavy weapons and explosives for cash rewards and amnesty until Wednesday. The deal is only open to suspects "who do not have the blood of innocent people on their hands," an official in the prime minister's office told CNN.

The move is Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's latest effort to stamp out militants and establish authority in an oil-rich region of Iraq where rival Shiite parties are battling for control. Al-Sadr's followers accused the government of trying to weaken their movement ahead of the much-anticipated provincial elections later this year.

Zebari said he expects Iraq to reach a long-term security agreement with the United States by the end of July, waving off suggestions negotiations are deadlocked.

"We made a great deal of progress on finalizing the strategic framework agreement," he said. Negotiators have shown "flexibility" on key issues, such as how much authority U.S. troops would have to operate outside their bases and whether they could use those installations to move offensives against any other nations in the region, Zebari said.

He said Iraq has "made it absolutely clear that Iraq will not be used for any offensive actions or for any attacks against any of Iraq's neighbors."

But an aide to Iraqi leader, Haidar Abadi, told CNN Thursday that Iraqi officials -- frustrated by the lack of success in negotiations -- were considering pulling out of talks and developing their own legislation to dictate the shape of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army, launched two unsuccessful uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004 and fought recent battles against U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in Basra and Baghdad. In a statement read Friday at mosques affiliated with his movement, al-Sadr -- who has ordered the Mehdi Army to stand down -- said he is establishing a new fighting force to battle American forces.

"The resistance will be exclusively conducted by only one group. This new group will be defined soon by me," the letter read. "The weapons will be held exclusively by this new group, and they should be pointed exclusively at the occupier. It is forbidden to target anyone else."

Iraqi and Western intelligence sources have said Iran pressured al-Sadr over the past few months to promote its interests, which include getting the United States out of Iraq. Al-Sadr's letter didn't explain why he decided to issue his command.

U.S. commanders credit the Mehdi Army's August 2007 cease-fire with part of the dramatic reduction in violence across Iraq in recent months.

But an Iraqi government crackdown on what it called "outlaws" in Basra sparked fighting between the Shiite militia and government security forces -- which are led by rival political factions -- in Baghdad's Sadr City slum and in other cities in southern Iraq.

On Thursday, after the deadline expires, Iraqi Security Forces will deploy and carry out "wide-scale" search operations for weapons and wanted individuals across the province, the prime minister's office announced. But Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi military spokesman, would not specify a start date for the operation Sunday.

Maysan province and its capital of Amara are believed to house Mehdi Army members who fled Basra and Baghdad after the earlier push. But the official in the prime minister's office said the Maysan operation is targeting "outlaws and criminals;" not a specific group or party, and is intended to impose law in the province.

That point was echoed by al-Askari, who on Sunday insisted the new operation was not a military one. He emphasized that it was unlike the two operations in Basra, in Baghdad's Sadr City and a third, in the northern city of Mosul, that Iraqi security forces carried out with the support of American troops

CNN's Michael Ware, Saad Abedine, Jomana Karadsheh and Yousif Bassil contributed to this report.

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