NAJAF, Iraq — Muqtada al-Sadr lambasted the American "enemy" in Iraq during his first speech in the country since returning from exile, fiery rhetoric from a new powerbroker in the government that will make it difficult to extend the U.S. military deployment beyond the end of this year.
The young Shiite cleric once blamed for some of the country's worst sectarian violence also told his followers that such bloodshed would no longer be tolerated and appealed to them to show unity in the face of the country's many problems.
The 35-minute speech on Saturday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf was a public debut for the young cleric after nearly four years in voluntary exile in neighboring Iran, and it seemed at times like a combination of a rock concert and religious sermon. After walking out to a podium draped in black cloth, al-Sadr had to wait almost a full five minutes for the rapturous crowd of around 20,000 people to quiet down enough for him to speak.
Some of the young men packed into the street outside the cleric's family home in Najaf slept on the ground with only cardboard slabs to protect them from the cold concrete. It gave them a prime seat to see their idol, and much of the crowd was openly weeping when al-Sadr took the stage. The young men pressed up against the concrete barriers and security guards, and after the cleric left, hundreds of supporters lingered by the podium, as though hoping for an encore performance.
Those in Najaf and thousands of Iraqis across the nation watching on TV saw a performance focused on the issue that has been the cornerstone of the cleric's ideology and popularity: resistance to any American presence in Iraq.
"We are still resisters, and we are still resisting the occupier militarily and culturally and by all the means of resistance. Repeat after me: No, no for the occupier. Let's have all the world hear that Iraqi people reject the occupier," he shouted. The crowd thundered along with him, pumping their fists in the air.
Unlike many Iraqi politicians who lived in exile while Saddam Hussein was in power, al-Sadr remained in Iraq – a fact that has earned him much of his popularity. Just a few hundred yards (meters) from where he al-Sadr spoke Saturday stands a small memorial marking the spot where the cleric's father and two brothers were gunned down, allegedly by Saddam's agents.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, al-Sadr quickly became one of the most vocal people rallying against the Americans. His Mahdi Army militia, armed with AK-47s and a deep devotion to its leader, battled U.S. forces through the streets of Najaf in 2004, when other Shiite leaders were cooperating with the Americans.
In 2006 and 2007, when sectarian bloodshed was at its height, his militia members were accused of some of the most vicious attacks against Sunnis, including torture with drills and electrocution.
But aiming now to become a mature political movement, al-Sadr in his speech sought to put the group's brutal reputation behind it.
"My dear, if any conflict happened between the brothers, let's forget this page and turn it over forever and let's live united," he said. "We have had enough fighting."
Al-Sadr left for Iran in 2007, in part to bolster his theological credentials – a necessity for a religious leader in this Shiite-dominated country – but also to escape an arrest warrant for allegedly killing another cleric. While he studied and deepened his ties to Iran, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent in the army to crush al-Sadr's militias in Basra and eastern Baghdad.
After the bruising defeat, al-Sadr's influence appeared to have exhausted itself.
But his movement regrouped, and a disciplined performance in the March election earned the Sadrists 40 seats in parliament, political clout and a return to prominence. His decision to throw his support behind al-Maliki all but gave the prime minister a second term after months of negotiations.
In turn for his support, al-Sadr got eight senior posts in government and the warrant for his arrest no longer seems to be an issue.
Despite his movement's now legitimate role inside the U.S.-allied government, al-Sadr remains stedfast in his opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, and showed no signs Saturday of being open to the Americans sticking around.
"Maybe during the past few days and months, we forgot the resistance and the expulsion of the occupier as we were busy with politics," he said. "We are the Iraqi people, our primary aim is to expel the occupier with any means available."
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad dismissed the remarks as "nothing new." But the presence of such a hardline, anti-American faction as one of al-Maliki's closest partners in a new government that is supposedly allied with Washington will likely make for uncomfortable moments down the road as Baghdad tries to balance the demands of its American allies and those of neighboring Iran, the region's Shiite power.
A little less than 50,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Iraq. Many Iraqi and U.S. officials are believed to want an American presence beyond the end of 2011, as currently planned under a U.S-Iraqi agreement, to do such things as control Iraq's airspace and monitor the borders.
But al-Sadr's remarks made clear it will be difficult for al-Maliki to renegotiate that deal.
The cleric also emphasized the need to improve services in the country where electricity is still intermittent, drinking water is often trucked into neighborhoods and sewage still runs in the streets. He implied that he would yank his support for the government if it didn't improve services for its impoverished citizens. But his own bloc's short history in al-Maliki's previous government had an abysmal record at running government agencies and will be hard-pressed to show an improvement this time.
Al-Sadr's decision to back al-Maliki last fall angered many in his bloc, to the point that some thought the movement was beginning to fracture. No such split has occurred, but al-Sadr is likely aware that much of his popularity stems from his family's lengthy history and not necessarily his own short political resume or thin religious credentials.
And many Iraqis who cannot forget the sectarian bloodshed viewed his call for unity with skepticism.
But among the hardcore followers chanting and beating their chests Saturday morning, there was little questioning of the direction he was taking the movement.
"He knows the interest of the people of the country," said 47-yera-old Sadiya Abed, who drove down from Baghdad for the speech.
Mindful of his new role, al-Sadr has sought since returning to Iraq to project a more sophisticated image of a disciplined, mature leader. The long row of guards who provided security at the morning speech wore identical gray suits – with shirts but no ties in the Iranian style – in a break from the more casual black clothes that used to be worn by his Mahdi Army members.
Al-Sadr said little about his immediate plans after exiting the stage but Sadrist politicians who watched the speech said he was here to stay.
"He's staying in this country and he's staying with these people," said a beaming Bahaa al-Aaraji, a leading Sadrist lawmaker.
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi in Najaf and Lara Jakes, Sinan Salaheddin, and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.