BAGHDAD, Iraq—Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr used his first public appearance in months on Friday to call again for Western troops to leave Iraq as the American military command confirmed the deaths of six more U.S. troops.
Al-Sadr's reappearance came as Iraqi government forces killed the top commander of his Mahdi Army militia in Basra and unidentified gunmen bombed another bridge in Baghdad.
Al-Sadr delivered a raucous sermon to about 6,000 worshipers at a mosque in the southern city of Kufa. As he spoke, his followers chanted "No, no for Satan. . . . No, no for America. No, no for the occupation. . . . No, no for Israel."
Al-Sadr repeated his longstanding demand that U.S.-led troops leave the country and insisted on an end to clashes between Iraqi security forces and his increasingly divided Mahdi Army. The cleric played to popular sentiment by saying Americans delight in pitting Iraqi against Iraqi in fights that only "served the interest of the occupiers."
"We demand the withdrawal of the occupation forces, or the creation of a timetable for such a withdrawal," he said during his sermon. "I call upon the Iraqi government not to extend the occupation even for a single day."
Out of public view for months—U.S. officials have said he'd taken refuge in Iran—al-Sadr arrived at the sacred Shiite mosque in Kufa surrounded by several bodyguards. He made no mention of where he had been or why he had chosen Friday to reappear.
Al-Sadr blamed Western troops for continuing violence in Iraq and said their continued presence would cause more trouble, not less.
"The occupation forces stand behind these things to create a reason for staying in this country," he said.
Al-Sadr increasingly has been critical of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose selection as prime minister a year ago took place largely because of al-Sadr's political backing. Since then, the two men have differed over al-Maliki's refusal to set a deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw.
Six weeks ago, a half-dozen al-Sadr supporters resigned from al-Maliki's government to protest the U.S. troop surge. Earlier this month, al-Sadr supporters in parliament circulated a proposed law demanding a deadline for a U.S. withdrawal.
Saleem Abdullah al-Jubouri, a member of the leading Sunni block in parliament, said it's becoming harder for al-Sadr to control various elements in the Mahdi Army.
"These groups started to follow their own agenda," he said. "They are groups and gangs that achieve their own personal aims."
After al-Sadr's sermon, Iraqi Army commandos attempted to arrest the top-ranking officer of the Mahdi Army in Basra. British officials said that when Wissam Abu Qadir resisted the arrested, Iraqi special forces shot him.
An official in al-Sadr's organization, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed Qadir's death and said another high-ranking Mahdi official died in the same incident.
The British described Qadir as the leader of a militant wing of the Mahdi Army responsible for funneling weapons and money to rogue outfits, plotting attacks on U.S.-led forces and intimidating local civilians.
In Baghdad, unidentified gunmen bombed a bridge over the Tigris River that linked two neighborhoods. It was at least the sixth attack in recent week on a capital-city bridge, in what appears to be a concerted effort to disrupt travel. Authorities said the blast left a 10- to 20-foot gap in the bridge.
The six troop deaths, all on Thursday, brought to at least 90 the number of American service members killed in Iraq so far this month. Three of the deaths took place in Baghdad, one by small arms fire while he was on patrol and two in an explosion. The others occurred outside the capital. One occurred when a roadside bomb struck the victim's vehicle in Salahuddin province, another by small arms fire in Tikrit (Salahuddin) and the third from gunfire in bloody Diayala province.