BAGHDAD — A powerful anti-American Shiite cleric threatened on Saturday to activate his feared militia if American soldiers remain in Iraq beyond this year, after a U.S. offer to keep troops on if they are needed.
Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement to his followers on the eighth anniversary of Saddam Hussein's ouster that stopped just short of calling for violent action against U.S. forces. He accused "the occupation" of inciting panic, corruption, and unrest among Iraqis.
His statement was read aloud at a huge protest of tens of thousands in Baghdad's Mawal Square, near al-Sadr's stronghold in an eastern Baghdad slum. The cleric is in Iran, where he has been studying religion for the last several years.
"What if the invasion forces will not leave our lands?" al-Sadr asked in the statement, which was read at the protest by his aide Salah al-Obeidi. "What if the U.S. forces and others stay in our beloved lands? What if their companies and embassy headquarters will continue to exist with the American flags hoisted on them? Will you be silent? Will you overlook this?"
"No, no America. No, no America," the crowd shouted in reply.
In January, al-Sadr visited his ancestral home in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, and told followers to embrace a peaceful approach to diplomacy as his political wing gains power in Iraq's government.
But he also said that should the U.S. troops remain in Iraq past 2011, followers might retaliate "by all means of resistance."
Saturday, al-Sadr elaborated on that point, explaining he would quickly train newly armed followers and bring his feared Mahdi Army militia out of retirement. "We will have to adopt [this] approach if they will not leave our country," he said.
The Mahdi Army ran rampant in Baghdad, Basra, and other Iraqi cities at the peak of Iraq's violence a few years ago, raiding homes and killing Sunnis in the widespread sectarian fighting that brought the country to the brink of civil war. Al-Sadr froze the militia after it was roundly defeated by Iraqi forces in Basra in 2008, reducing violence in the country.