BAGHDAD – An anti-American cleric is urging his followers to stop attacking U.S. troops in Iraq so that their withdrawal from the country isn't slowed down, a call meant to ramp up pressure on Baghdad's political leaders who are considering asking some American forces to stay.
In a statement posted on his website, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his militias to halt attacks against U.S. forces till the withdrawal is finished at the end of the year as required under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad.
"Out of my desire to complete Iraq's independence and to finish the withdrawal of the occupation forces from our holy lands, I am obliged to halt military operations of the honest Iraqi resistance until the withdrawal of the occupation forces is complete," al-Sadr said in the statement, posted late Saturday. Sadrist lawmaker Mushraq Naji confirmed the statement on Sunday.
However, al-Sadr warned that "if the withdrawal doesn't happen ... the military operations will be resumed in a new and tougher way."
The statement followed last week's notice by U.S. officials in Baghdad, announcing the start of the withdrawal.
There are currently about 45,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.
However, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are currently weighing whether some American troops should remain past the Dec. 31 deadline as Baghdad continues to struggle with instability and burgeoning influence from neighboring Iran. Last month, Iraqi leaders began negotiating with U.S. officials in Baghdad to keep at least several thousand troops in Iraq to continue training the nation's shaky security forces.
Officials in Washington say President Barack Obama is willing to keep between 3,000 and 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. But with fewer than four months before the final deadline, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament still have not indicated how many U.S. troops Iraq might need, how long they would stay, or exactly what they would be doing.
After more than eight years of war, many weary Iraqis are ready to see U.S. troops go, and staunchly defend their national sovereignty against an American force they see as occupiers. Al-Sadr's followers vehemently oppose a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq, and walked out of last month's meeting where political leaders decided to open the talks on having American troops stay.
"Our goal has been always to fight the occupiers because they are still in our country," Naji said Sunday.
Still, other Iraqi officials privately say they want American troops to continue training the nation's security forces for months, if not years, to come. The president of Iraq's northern Kurdish region this week pleaded for U.S. forces to stay to ward off threats of renewed sectarian violence.
Many Iraqis -- both Sunnis and Shiites -- share that fear.
"As for me, and the sheiks of Nasiriyah, we want the U.S. Army to stay," Sheik Manshad al-Ghezi of the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah said in a recent interview. "We are afraid of civil war. All the parties and groups in Iraq are armed and the Iraqi Army cannot manage to bring security to Iraq and stop the fighting among these parties."
In another statement posted Sunday, a Shiite militia controlled by Iran jeered calls for U.S. troops to stay. The group ridiculed a warning last week by Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani that raised the specter of civil war if American forces leave Iraq. Kurds have long depended on U.S. troops to protect them, going back to Saddam Hussein's rule.
"When the (U.S.) occupation gets out of the country with his agents, the Iraqi nation will be unified," an unidentified leader for Kataib Hezbollah, which operates in Iraq, wrote on the militia's website. "Whoever calls for keeping the occupation is linking his destiny with the occupation and has sold himself as cheap, and he should leave the country with his masters."