- Associated Press - Saturday, January 8, 2011

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Saturday his followers in Iraq were still resisting the U.S. “enemy” with all means, including force. But he tempered his fiery words by saying the new Iraqi government should be given a chance to get American troops out of the country in a “suitable” way.

In his first speech since returning from almost four years of self-imposed exile in Iran, the 37-year-old cleric whose Shiite militias once ruthlessly pursued U.S. troops and terrorized Iraqi Sunnis stopped short of explicitly urging violence against Americans. But he left open the possibility that some 50,000 U.S. troops set to leave Iraq at the end of this year could be targeted.

“Let the whole world hear that we reject America. No, no to the occupier,” al-Sadr said during his 35-minute speech in Najaf, a Shiite holy city about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad. “We don’t kill Iraqis — our hands do not kill Iraqis. But we target only the occupier with all the means of resistance.”

“We are still resisters and we are still resisting the occupier militarily and culturally and by all the means of resistance,” he added.

Al-Sadr has long branded the U.S. military as occupiers in Iraq, and Washington considers him a security threat. Yet after winning 40 seats in March parliamentary elections — and taking eight top leadership posts in the new governmental-Sadr’s political muscle makes him a force that cannot be ignored.

Addressing an adoring and frenzied crowd of thousands, al-Sadr called the U.S., Israel and Britain “our common enemies.”

“Maybe during the past few days and months, we forgot the resistance and about expelling of the occupier as we were busy with politics,” al-Sadr said. “Our aim is to expel the occupier with any means. The resistance does not mean that everyone can carry a weapon. The weapon is only for the people of the weapons” — fighters.

U.S. Embassy spokesman David J. Ranz brushed off al-Sadr’s remarks. “We listened to the speech, but heard nothing new,” Ranz said.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh declined to comment on al-Sadr’s speech. But lawmakers called it the cleric’s opening gambit to join Iraq’s political power circles, and downplayed suggestions that al-Sadr’s remarks might incite violence.

“I don’t think that Muqtada is calling now to carry weapons to attack the foreign forces, he’s a supporter to the political process,” said Shiite lawmaker Mohammed Sadoun, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law political coalition.

Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said al-Sadr appeared to be seeking more political influence without having to resort to violence. He said the use of the word “resistance,” likely signaled that the cleric and his followers are not going away.

“If he means violence, then this will complicate the political process, destabilize Iraq, embarrass al-Maliki and prevent al-Sadr from gaining more influence,” Othman said. “There is nothing to gain from violence.”

A security agreement between Washington and Baghdad requires all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of the year. Although both al-Maliki and the Obama administration have said the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops will leave by then, officials in both nations have acknowledged that Iraq is not yet ready to protect its borders from possible invasion. That’s led to widespread speculation that al-Maliki ultimately will ask a small number of American forces to remain.

Al-Sadr said Saturday that would be unacceptable, but asked his followers to let the government carry out its plan for the troop departure.

“The new government must work to get the occupier out of the country in a suitable way,” he said. “We heard the government pledge this and we are waiting for it to honor its word.”

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