Sadr returns to Iraq stage, denounces U.S. occupation

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, newly returned to Iraq from exile, was being welcomed by supporters Thursday. The fiery populist, whose forces once battled U.S. soldiers and Marines, urged his backers to show discipline.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 9:23 PM

NAJAF, IRAQ - In an appearance that was part sermon and part political stump speech, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr electrified a crowd of thousands here Saturday, stirring the well of anti-Americanism that first propelled him to prominence during the Iraq war.

The event marked the cleric's full reemergence in Iraq after about four years of self-imposed exile in Iran. Sadr said he thanked God that in that time his followers had continued to chalk up "victories," including being able to coalesce as a political party with a powerful say in Iraq's future.

But Sadr - who recently threw his support behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, positioning him to win a second term - also sought to re-center his cause as still mainly one of resistance. His followers, he said, must continue to focus on fiercely resisting the United States, but perhaps also targeting their own government if it cannot restore services or security and hold to a timeline for a full U.S. military withdrawal by the end of 2011.

"We say to the Iraq government: Enough occupation and enough slavery," Sadr said. "We heard that the government has pledged to get the occupation out, and we are waiting for its promise."

Sadr said every country in the world has been troubled by Iraq's many years of hardship, except "our joint enemy: America, Israel and Britain." He then launched the crowd into the first of nearly a dozen increasingly boisterous chants of "No, no America!"

Despite the clarity of the mantra, Sadr also spoke in near riddles, leaving as many questions as answers about how much he was asking of his followers, who have a history of bloody battles with U.S. forces.

"We don't kill Iraqis," Sadr said. "We target the occupiers only." He said his followers should use "military and educational resistance," but added a moment later: "But resistance means resistance, it doesn't mean anyone can carry a weapon. Weapon is for the people of weapons only."

Arabic media, which largely described the speech as peaceful, debated the intent of that last comment. Did he mean that a weapon can be used against a foreign soldier who is armed? Or did he mean that only those permitted to carry weapons are allowed to use them?

Regardless, the remarks were bound to heighten concern for about 48,000 remaining U.S. service members in Iraq. And Sadr's hard line on Americans leaving at the end of the year raised questions about whether he would resist an anticipated long-term U.S. diplomatic presence here.

Sadr, who was in Iran studying to become an ayatollah, is believed to have spent at least part of the past four years under the tutelage of hard-line clerics in Tehran.

His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, was assassinated in 1999 by loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

On Saturday, he stressed that Iraqis must also push back against American cultural influences that could linger after nearly eight years of a massive military presence.

However, he vowed to support the new Iraqi government formed last month as long as it proves capable of improving Iraqis' lives. "If it serves the people and provides security and safety and services, we are with it, not against it," he said.

Sadr denounced violence against fellow Iraqis, singling out a string of recent assassinations of police and government officials and targeted bombings of Christians.

"Any conflicts between the brothers, let us forget that page and leave it forever," he said.

The speech caused no major problems in Najaf, where heavy security blanketed the city ahead of the event. Elsewhere in Iraq, at least four other people died Saturday in bombings and a gun attack.

Although he was calm during his appearance, even joking occasionally with the audience, Sadr left the stage abruptly after less than 30 minutes. Sadrist cleric Hazim al-Araji said the crowd had become too loud for the cleric to continue. Sadr had earlier issued notes chastising his followers for not being more reverent in his presence since he arrived in the country Wednesday.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan, Ali Qeis and Saad Sarhan contributed to this report.

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