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Radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday exhorted a boisterous crowd to resist the US "occupation" by

'No, no to America!'

Radical Iraqi Shiite cleric calls on Iraqis to live in unity, stresses they will not be harmed by his forces.



By Hassan Abdul Zahra - NAJAF

all means, in his first speech since returning home to the holy city of Najaf.

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

According to an AFP photographer, about 20,000 people turned out to hear Sadr 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!'" said Sadr, who left Iraq at the beginning of 2007, according to US and Iraqi officials, and had reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

The crowd did so, but in voices the cleric deemed to be too muted.

Sadr asked: "Are you afraid of America? Say 'no, no to America! No, no to Israel!'"

The crowd roared back the same chant.

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 this year.

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

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

"We listened to the speech, but heard nothing new," David Ranz, the spokesman for the US embassy in Baghdad, said of Sadr's speech.

He declined to comment further, and the US military in Iraq referred questions to the embassy.

While Sadr called for resistance against the US presence, he also stressed that 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.

"If the conflicts took place among brothers, let us forget this page and turn it forever, and live united in peace and security," Sadr said in an apparent reference to sectarian violence in Iraq.

"We have to put an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people, by our unity," he said.

Sadr also said Iraq's new government, which was approved by parliament on December 21 and includes six ministers from his bloc, should be given a chance to perform, but must ensure that US forces withdraw.

"The government is new, so we should give it a chance to prove it is at the service of the people," he said.

But it also "must work to remove the occupier by any suitable means," Sadr added.

"We heard a promise from the government that it will remove the occupier from the country, and we are waiting for this promise" to be fulfilled.

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.

Sadr 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 to bring about a significant decrease in the levels of violence across Iraq.

Despite only rare appearances in public, the cleric is idolised by millions of Shiites, especially in Najaf where he has his headquarters and in the impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City, which is named after his father, a revered cleric who was killed by gunmen in 1999.

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