A feisty Muqtada al-Sadr, making his first public appearance in 10 months, said in an interview aired Saturday by Al-Jazeera that he was in almost total control of the Mahdi Army and that the "liberation" of Iraq was his militia's chief goal. The radical Shi'ite cleric also said the impact of the US presence on Iraq was more negative than that of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, ousted in the US-led invasion of 2003. Al-Sadr alleged that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shi'ite, was as "distant" from the people of Iraq as Saddam's regime. The government, he said, was "looking after its own interests, not those of the people." Al-Sadr's interview, conducted in an undisclosed location, came as violence was on the rise as part of a nationwide backlash by the Mahdi Army to the Iraqi government's attempt to crush Shi'ite militias and criminal gangs in the southern port city Basra. In the interview, the 34-year-old al-Sadr appeared to have lost a great deal of weight but none of his hallmark confrontational style, frequently interrupting the interviewer or correcting him.