Sadr urges Iraqis to resist US occupiers

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday exhorted a boisterous crowd to resist the "US occupation" by all means, in his first speech since returning to his Iraqi home city of Najaf.

"We still resist the occupier, by military resistance, and all the means of resistance," Sadr said in the central shrine city, where he returned on Wednesday after about four years of self-imposed exile.

Tens of thousands of people turned out to hear him speak, waving a forest of Iraqi flags and pictures of the cleric.

"Iraq passed through difficult circumstances, which made everyone cry, and did not satisfy anyone except our joint enemy — America, Israel and Britain," Sadr said.

"So say after me: 'No, no to America!'" The crowd did so, but in voices the cleric deemed to be too quiet.

Sadr asked, "Are you afraid of America? Say 'no, no to America! No, no to Israel!" The crowd roared.

About 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq, but are required under a security accord between Baghdad and Washington to withdraw by the end of the year.

US forces in Iraq have mainly focused on training Iraqi forces, after combat operations in the country were officially declared over from 1 September 2010.

Despite the end of combat operations, American soldiers are allowed to return fire in self-defence and take part in operations if requested by their Iraqi counterparts under the terms of a bilateral security pact.

In his speech calling for resistance against the US presence, Sadr stressed that other Iraqis would not be harmed by his forces.

"Our hand will not touch any Iraqi… we only target the occupier, by all means of resistance. We are one people. We don't agree with some groups that carry out assassinations," Sadr said.

"For the unity of Iraq, say after me: Yes, yes for Iraq! Yes, yes, for peace! Yes, yes for harmony!" The crowd yelled back the cleric's words.

The fiery, controversial Sadr gained widespread popularity among Shiites in the months after the 2003 US-led invasion, and his Mahdi Army militia later battled American and Iraqi government forces in several bloody confrontations.

He was identified by the Pentagon in 2006 as the biggest threat to stability in Iraq.

His militia became the most active and feared armed Shiite group, and was blamed by Washington for death-squad killings of thousands of Sunnis.

But in August 2008, Sadr suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, after major US and Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq in the spring.

Following the ceasefire, US military commanders said his action had been instrumental in helping bring about a significant decrease in the levels of violence across Iraq.

Despite only rare appearances in public, the cleric is idolized by millions of Shiites, especially in Najaf, where he has his headquarters, and in the impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City.

Sadr left Iraq at the end of 2006, according to his movement, and had reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom. He returned to his home city of Najaf on Wednesday.

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