NAJAF, Iraq — In a triumphal return after more than three years in Iran, militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr called on his followers Saturday to abandon the use of violence and channel their efforts into the new Iraqi government, while demanding an end to U.S. influence in Iraq.
"We do not kill Iraqis. We do not raise our hand to kill an Iraqi man," he told thousands of flag-waving men who packed the street outside his home in this city of shrines sacred to Iraqi Shiites. Only those authorized should carry weapons, and his followers shouldn't use violence against foreigners or Iraqis, he said. And he called for only "cultural" and "intellectual" resistance against what he described as the U.S. "occupation."
Many in the fired up crowd had spent the night on the street in response to Sadr's call for his followers to travel to Najaf, which is about 120 miles south of Baghdad.
Three years ago, Sadr's followers comprised the much-feared Jaish al Mahdi militia, which controlled the oil-producing city of Basra, a large part of Baghdad, and parts of other predominantly Shiite cities in southern Iraq. They were ousted only after Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki mounted a major military operation in Basra and in Baghdad, with U.S. support, in the spring of 2008.
Although the militia stood down at the time, many Iraqis feared that the Sadrist movement, which will control eight ministries in the new government, will turn to violence again if it doesn't get its way. Sadr appeared to respond to that fear Saturday.
"We want to see a unified Iraq, in which no Iraqi raises a weapon against another Iraqi," he said.
"I don't want to hear any complaints because of you" he told his followers, "not from Iraqis, not from non-Iraqis." The men chanted in response: "I promise, I promise for the leaders" sake."
Sadr's half hour speech in his hometown was his first formal appearance here since he left for Iran in 2007, where he pursued religious studies in hopes of becoming a high religious authority. His own movement lost its moorings after Maliki's 2008 military offensive, but reorganized itself as a political force that ran a sophisticated political campaign last year, focusing on providing better public services for the poor.
A close aide, Hazim al Araji, who heads the Sadrists' committee on social welfare, told McClatchy here Saturday that Sadr, 37, is likely to stay in Iraq.
Sadr's father and great-uncle were both widely respected senior clergy, and both were killed by Saddam Hussein, the dictator ousted in the U.S. invasion of 2003.
While Sadr sought to broaden his appeal by calling for an end to violence against the U.S. presence, denouncing a current wave of assassinations of security officials and expressing sympathy for Christians, who've been attacked in their churches and homes in the past two months, he also led the crowd in familiar anti-American chants.
Indeed, he suggested that the political wrangling of the past year — that resulted in formation of a government last month, seven months after elections — has distracted the public from the Sadrist message that the U.S. presence and influence must go.
"This year we have been overwhelmed with politics, so overwhelmed with politics that we have forgotten that we are an occupied country, and that our first objective should be to get rid of the occupation. It is a legal and a religious obligation that we are committed to seeing through," he said.
At his direction, the crowd chanted: "No, no to the occupier." Sadr said the government had pledged that the U.S. presence will end. The government "should fulfill its promise," he said.
"Let's annoy the occupier," he said. The crowd responded: "Yes, yes for the resistance." But chanting was as far as they are now to go. Where previously he'd urged his followers to fight the U.S.-led occupation, Sadr Saturday urged them to pursue "cultural" and "intellectual" resistance and lay down all arms.
"Resistance is resistance. That doesn't mean that everyone carries a weapon. Only those who are authorized should carry weapons," he said. "We also resisted through cultural resistance. Our rejection of the occupiers, in our hearts, is a kind of resistance." There was some incongruity in playing up Sadrist opposition to the U.S. presence, for it was Maliki who in November 2008 negotiated a status of forces agreement that has led to a drawdown, without Sadr's active support. It also formally ended the U.S. presence in Iraq.
President Barack Obama has sped up the process, and all American troops are to be withdrawn by the end of this year. It's not clear if taking credit for actions already under way may will resonate with the broader public, some of whom would like the U.S. forces to stay longer.
Sadr's appearance may have energized his backers, but his presentation came across as unpolished, which may make it harder to reach the country at large, even though the content of his message went beyond his base. "We the people of Iraq are one nation," he said. "We call for peace for all Iraqis. We call for peace for Iraqi Christians and for all sectors of the Iraqi society and our goal is to see a stable secure Iraq emerge from this chaos."
He also called for a new chapter in Iraqi politics. "If struggle occurred between the brothers, we should forget it, forget this page, close it forever. Let us live in unity," he said, adding: "Help me in this. Iraqi people do not need enemies. The Iraqi people need friends."
At the same time, while his movement now controls eight ministries in the Iraqi government, he portrayed the Sadrists' participation as conditional, and spoke of the government as if he was willing to join the opposition.
"We will support any government that serves the people and will oppose any government that looks only to its own interests," he said.
He looked up at one point and said, as if to the government: "We're watching you."
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad contributed to this article).
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