BAGHDAD — Hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of followers Saturday to mark the eighth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Husseins regime with a warning that United States troops must not stay in Iraq past their scheduled Dec. 31 departure date.
In a speech read by an aide to the crowd, Sadr said that the failure of U.S. troops to leave on time would mean "escalating military resistance and reactivating the Mahdi Army," the Sadr-directed militia responsible for hundreds of American deaths from 2003 to 2006, when he declared a ceasefire.
Saturday's warning seemed aimed at American civilians as well.
What if the invading forces dont leave our land? What if they stay on in another form?...If their companies, embassies have the invading American flags waving over them. Will you remain silent? Sadr asked in his speech, the message.
Black smoke from burning American flags rose over the scene, which included a grisly display of effigies in business suits being held in cages.
We are time bombs, the crowd chanted.
It was one of the largest, virulently anti-American protests held here in years, and a reminder that Sadr remains a potent political force despite his absence from Iraq in recent years to pursue religious studies in Iran.
Tens of thousands of Sadr supporters attended the rally, which featured a march from Sadr City, the vast Shiite Baghdad neighborhood named for Sadr's assassinated father, to Mustansiriya Square, where Sadr's speech was read. The venue in eastern Baghdad was far from Firdous Square, where U.S, Marines helped Iraqis bring down Saddams statue in 2003.
The outpouring comes at critical time for the United States as it draws down its forces here ahead of the year-end withdrawal deadline set in the so-called status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States.
Carrying out the withdrawal is becoming the main task of U.S. troops here, overshadowing their official role of advising and assisting Iraqi forces, which still lack the ability to defend either the country's air space or land borders. On a low-profile visit to Iraq last week, U.S Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Iraqi leaders that time was running out if they were intending to ask for some US troops to stay next year.
But asking U.S. forces to stay on is politically untenable, and Iraqi officials suggest that the most the U.S. can expect is some kind of bilateral military cooperation agreement.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is beholden to Sadr. Maliki managed to cobble together a coalition government after last years disputed elections only after Sadr, a long-time political enemy, agreed to join forces with him. If Sadr withdrew from the governing coalition, Malikis already fragile government would likely collapse.
Maliki, if unintentionally, acknowledged Sadr's import in the way he chose to mark April 9, which has been an official national holiday since 2004, but that many Iraqis refuse to commemorate.
Maliki's televised speech on Saturday was a lengthy paean to the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al Sadr, the founder of Maliki's Dawa party who was executed by Saddam's regime on April 9, 1980. Muqtada al Sadr is married to Bakr al Sadr's daughter.
Maliki's speech made no mention of Saddam's fall or the American role in it. Firdous Square, where a statue of Saddam was toppled with the help of a crane operated by U.S. marines in a scene broadcast around the world, was deserted on the anniversary.
Sadr's hardly veiled threat against American civilians also could pose problems for the United States.
U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey told reporters last month that the embassy, already the biggest in the world, planned to double in size next year to 18,000 personnel. That would include security, support staff and diplomatic offices outside of Baghdad.
Asked whether Sadrists opposed even a U.S. diplomatic mission here after U.S. military forces were gone, several officials of the Sadr movement said they opposed any expansion of the U.S. civilian presence and considered the embassy the headquarters for the occupation.
Sadr ended his message by calling on all his followers who could to register at the political partys offices to engage in an open-ended protest until the Americans left.
Most Iraqis are deeply cynical about US intentions here.
Iraq is a very rich country, said Sabah al-Amiri, a 47-year-old government employee who came out to the protest. Logically I cant believe the Americans will leave and ignore these interests easily.
(Arraf reports for the Christian Science Monitor. Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. The Monitor and McClatchy operate a joint news bureau in Iraq.)
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