BAGHDAD – After weeks of cooperation with a new security plan, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr decried U.S. forces as occupiers Friday and called on his followers to “shout ‘No, No America!’ ” in a sign of resurgent anger and opposition.
Thousands of Shiites flooded from the mosque where al-Sadr’s statement was read by a preacher at Friday prayers, spilling into the streets of the Sadr City slum to protest the two-week-old American military presence there. The U.S. military says al-Sadr has gone to Iran.
Officials with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army did not explain why al-Sadr chose to issue the surprisingly confrontational statement.
American military leaders had credited al-Sadr – who was said to have ordered his Mahdi Army militia to put away its weapons and not confront U.S. and Iraqi troops – for the relatively effortless start of security patrols and raids in the volatile Shiite slum, a no-go zone for U.S. forces until about two weeks ago.
Al-Sadr’s message on the Muslim day of prayer and rest could signal a shift in his willingness to absorb the perceived indignity of the U.S. troop presence and wait out the security plan. Or it could have been nothing more than a reminder to his followers that he was watching carefully and was still their leader.
“The occupiers want to harm this beloved (Sadr City) and tarnish its name by spreading false rumors and allegations that negotiations and cooperation are ongoing between you and them,” the statement said. “I am confident that you will not make concessions to them and will remain above them. Raise your voices in love and brotherhood and unity against your enemy and shout ‘No, No America!’ “
Al-Sadr’s office in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, confirmed the statement was genuine. American military officials said the fiercely anti-American cleric remains in Iran, where he was said to have fled in the days preceding the security operation.
The reference in the al-Sadr statement to “negotiations” may have been intended as a reminder to followers not to go too far in cooperating with the Americans.