By Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will "escalate military resistance" and unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. troops fail to leave Iraq, the cleric was quoted as saying on Saturday.
On the 8th anniversary of the day U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi read a speech from the influential Shi'ite cleric to tens of thousands of followers.
Some carried signs reading "Occupiers Out" and "No to America." Others burned U.S., Israeli and British flags.
"We say to the Black House (White House), 'we are all time bombs and the detonators are at the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr.' American troops must definitely leave our lands," senior Sadr aide Hazem al-Araji told the Sadr followers.
To a wildly cheering crowd in Baghdad's Mustansiriya Square, Ubaidi, reading Sadr's speech, said an extension of the U.S. "occupation" would have two consequences.
"First, the escalation of military resistance work and the withdrawal of the order freezing the Mehdi Army, in a new statement issued later. Second, escalation of peaceful and public resistance through sit-ins and protests, to say that the people want the exit of the occupation," he said.
Sadr is currently in Iran, a source close to the cleric said.
The warning came after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Iraq, pressed the Iraqi government for a decision on whether it wanted U.S. troops to extend their stay to help fend off a still-lethal insurgency.
Some 47,000 remaining forces are scheduled to leave by year's end under a security agreement between the two countries.
Sadr's Mehdi Army militia fought U.S. troops during the height of Iraq's sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07, when tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent government troops to crush the militia in 2008.
U.S. officials and Sunni Arab leaders accused the Mehdi Army of being behind many of the sectarian killings in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Sadr disavowed violence against fellow Iraqis and in 2008 ordered his militia to become a humanitarian group. The black-clad fighters have maintained a relatively low profile since but U.S. officials still regard them with suspicion.
Sadr's political movement won strong support in elections last year and overcame animosity toward Maliki to join his coalition government, formed in December after nine months of tense negotiations between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
Sadr, who fled Iraq in 2006 or 2007 after an arrest warrant was issued for him, has lived and studied in neighboring Iran in recent years. He returned in early January but did not stay long before heading back to Iran.
Sadr and his senior leaders have the ability to turn out hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic followers.
Maliki has said foreign troops will not be needed in Iraq after the U.S. security pact expires at year-end but U.S. and Iraqi military officials have said Iraq's fledgling army and police still need help, particularly with air defense to protect against external threats.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Jim Loney)