- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — After weeks of cooperation with a new security plan, radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced U.S. forces as occupiers yesterday and called on his followers to “shout ‘No, No America’ ” in a sign of resurgent anger and opposition.

Thousands of Shi’ites flooded from the mosque where Sheik al-Sadr’s statement was read at Friday prayers, spilling into the streets of the Sadr City slum to protest the two-week-old American military presence there.

The U.S. military says Sheik al-Sadr is in Iran.

Officials with Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army did not explain why he chose to issue the surprisingly confrontational statement.

American military leaders had credited Sheik al-Sadr — who was said to have ordered his Mahdi Army militia to put away its weapons and not confront U.S. and Iraqi troops — for the relatively effortless start of security patrols and raids in the volatile Shi’ite slum, a no-go zone for U.S. forces until about two weeks ago.

“The occupiers want to harm this beloved [Sadr City] and tarnish its name by spreading false rumors and allegations that negotiations and cooperation are ongoing between you and them,” the statement said.

“I am confident that you will not make concessions to them and will remain above them. Raise your voices in love and brotherhood and unity against your enemy and shout ‘No, No America!”

Sheik al-Sadr’s message on the Muslim day of prayer and rest could signal a shift in his willingness to absorb the perceived indignity of the U.S. troop presence and wait out the security plan. Or it could have been nothing more than a reminder to his followers that he was watching carefully and was still their leader.

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