Iraq's Sadr calls for halt to attacks on US troops

September 11, 2011 14:19

Extremist Iraqi cleric warns that if US forces do not leave by year-end deadline, violence against military would resume at full force.

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US troops preparing to leave Iraq

US troops leaving Iraq_311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

BAGHDAD - Fiercely anti-US Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday called on his followers to suspend attacks against US troops to ensure they leave Iraq by the deadline set for December 31, 2011, when US troops are expected to withdraw fully.

He warned that if US forces do not depart on time, military operations would resume and would be "very severe."

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"Because of my eagerness to accomplish the independence of Iraq and have the invader forces withdraw from our holy land, it has become imperative for me to stop military operations ... until the invader forces complete their withdrawal," Sadr said in a statement read out by his spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi.

"If not, the military operation will start again and with new approaches, and it will be very severe."

Iraq's political leaders are currently negotiating with the United States on the sensitive issue of whether to keep US military on as trainers beyond 2011, more than eight years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia fought US forces until 2008, stated last month that US military trainers who stay after 2011 would be targets.

While Sadr's Mehdi Army militia has for the most part been demobilized, US officials say splinter groups have continued to attack US soldiers.

"We shall soon see whether the Promised Day Brigade and others affiliated with al-Sadr's organization continue to conduct attacks against US forces and the Iraqi government, or if these are just words without the deeds to back them up," US military spokesman Colonel Barry Johnson said in an emailed response to Sadr's statement.

Iraqi security forces are seen to be capable of tackling internal threats, but say they still need training for their air and naval defenses, and some heavy conventional weaponry.

Although violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically from the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-7, bombings and killings occur daily and Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militia are still capable of carrying out lethal operations.

Attacks against Iraqi and US security forces have climbed in recent months. While there were no US military casualties in August, 14 US soldiers were killed in June, the deadliest month for US forces since 2008.

Iraqi security forces are seen to be capable of tackling internal threats, but say they still need training for their air and naval defenses, and some heavy conventional weaponry.

Ubaidi said if the Iraqi government wanted, Sadrists were ready to secure the roads for US troops as they depart Iraq.

Sadr's political movement is a key ally of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his fragile coalition mix of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

He has in the past threatened to revive the Mehdi Army if US troops stay, but Sadrist sources have said the militia is riven with splinter groups and internal divisions.

US officials and Sunni Arab leaders accused the Mehdi Army of being behind many of the sectarian killings in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

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