- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

BAGHDAD — Radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months today, delivering a fiery anti-American sermon to thousands of followers and demanding that U.S. troops leave Iraq.

It was not immediately clear why he chose to return now to his base in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf from Iran. His speech had new nationalist overtones, calling on Sunnis to join with him in the fight against the U.S. presence. He also criticized the government’s inability to provide reliable services to its people.

Sheik al-Sadr’s reappearance, four months after he went underground at the start of the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown, came just hours before his Mahdi Army militia lost its top commander in the southern city of Basra in a gun battle with British soldiers, Iraqi police said.

The 33-year-old Sheik al-Sadr is believed to be honing plans to consolidate political gains and foster ties with Iran — and possibly trying to take advantage of the absence of a major rival, Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and went to Iran for treatment.

The U.S. military also announced today that six U.S. soldiers were killed in a series of attacks across Iraq in recent days. The killings raised the American death toll for the month to at least 88. Last month, 104 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq.

Sheik al-Sadr traveled in a long motorcade from Najaf to the adjacent holy city of Kufa this morning to deliver his sermon before 6,000 worshippers.

“No, no for Satan. No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. No, no for Israel,” he chanted in a call and response with the audience at the start of his speech.

He repeated his long-standing call for U.S. forces to leave Iraq.

“We demand the withdrawal of the occupation forces, or the creation of a timetable for such a withdrawal,” he said. “I call upon the Iraqi government not to extend the occupation even for a single day.”

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe expressed hope that Sheik al-Sadr’s reappearance signaled that he wanted “to play a positive role inside Iraq.”

“He has an opportunity to be a part of the political reconciliation process. We’ll see if he and his followers participate,” he said.

Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought U.S. troops to a virtual standstill in 2004, but to avoid renewed confrontation, he ordered his militants off the streets when the United States began its security crackdown in the Baghdad area 14 weeks.

The Mahdi Army received a severe blow today when its 23-year-old Basra leader, Wissam al-Waili, was shot and killed along with his brother and two aides during a battle with British forces, police said.

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