NAJAF, Iraq – A radical anti-American cleric says he will stay away from Iraqi politics as long as U.S. troops remain, and he condemned senior Shiite leaders and the government for embracing this year's elections that "legitimized the occupation."
In a rare interview with a Western news organization, Muqtada al-Sadr (search) also criticized the desecration of the Quran by interrogators and guards at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, telling The Associated Press their action was criminal.
"God willing, whenever the tyranny's blows increase in frequency, our own courage and strength increase, too," Muqtada told the AP late Sunday as he sat on a cushion in his home in this holy city south of Baghdad. "Islam has lost nothing from this crime."
Al-Sadr indirectly criticized Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search), for promoting the process that led to the formation of the country's Shiite-led government.
Al-Sistani was the driving force behind Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government and the man whose endorsement of the electoral process led Shiites to vote in droves in Iraq's historic balloting on Jan. 30.
Al-Sadr said al-Sistani's appeal presented voting as an act of "political resistance" against the U.S. presence in Iraq, but it in fact legitimized the occupation.
"In reality, the electoral process was designed to legitimize the occupation, rather than ridding the country of the occupation," al-Sadr said.
The United States formally ended its occupation of Iraq a year ago, but it still has nearly 140,000 troops in the country, giving Washington a big say over policy.
Al-Sadr followers have in the past voiced contempt for Iraq's senior Shiite clerics, including al-Sistani, for their perceived tolerance of the U.S. presence in Iraq. They have, however, refrained from making such attacks in recent months.
Al-Sadr's criticism of the Iranian-born al-Sistani also seemed to contradict recent efforts to improve relations with rival Shiite bodies and politicians from Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups.
A populist leader who burst onto Iraq's political scene after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, al-Sadr has been holed up at home since last fall. Scores of people stood in line outside the modest two-story house in the upscale al-Hanana neighborhood, with security guards searching them under a tent.
The fiery al-Sadr, a black turbaned seminary student in his early 30s, vanished from public view following street battles between his militia — the Imam al-Mahdi Army — and U.S. forces in Baghdad and elsewhere across central and southern Iraq. His followers rose up twice against U.S. troops last year, and a number of Americans died in those battles.
His influence extends far beyond Najaf and has his main power base 100 miles north in Baghdad's Sadr city — a sprawling neighborhood home to some 2.5 million Shiites and named for Muqtada's father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed in 1999 by suspected agents of Saddam.
Although al-Sadr claims to distance himself from politics, his supporters ran in the January elections as independents or members of electoral alliances. There are believed to be at least 20 "Sadrist" deputies in the 275-member parliament. About half, however, owe allegiance to the memory and teachings of the father, not the son.
Al-Sadr said in the interview he would continue to personally stay away from politics while there are foreign troops in Iraq.
"As long as the occupier is here, I will not interfere in the political process," he said. "I would like to condemn and denounce the last Iraqi government's decision to legalize the occupation. Legalizing the occupation is rejected from any angle."
Anyone who sees himself capable of bringing about political reform should go ahead and try, he added, "but my belief is that the occupiers won't allow him."
He did not say what reforms he was talking about, but he complained later in the interview that al-Jaafari's government was not doing enough to develop Iraq's impoverished south, where many al-Sadr supporters live.
"I call on authorities to spend Iraqi money on Iraqis and serve the interests of Iraq's people ... not on America's interests in Iraq," he said, warning that "for every action there's a reaction."
Al-Sadr said he preferred to see an Islamist constitution adopted in Iraq, but he believed the decision should be left to the Iraqi people.
"I will not interfere, whether it's Islamic or non-Islamic, but I personally prefer it to be Islamic. It is up to the Iraqi people to decide about their constitution," he said.
Parliament has until Aug. 15 to draft a new constitution that will be put to a vote in a referendum two months later. If adopted, it will provide the basis for this year's second general election, scheduled for December.
There is an outstanding arrest warrant for al-Sadr over his alleged role in the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf two years ago. U.S. diplomats and military officials have said in private conversation that they do not mind al-Sadr's return to politics — as long as he stays away from violence.