Iraq's Sadr rallies supporters against U.S. troop extension

Reuters News
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Posted: May 26, 2011 5:13 AM
Iraq's Sadr rallies supporters against U.S. troop extension

By Khalid al-Ansary and Suadad al-Salhy

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Anti-U.S. Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr brought thousands of Shi'ite supporters onto the streets of Baghdad on Thursday in a show of force against any extension of the U.S. military presence in Iraq past a year-end deadline.

Sadr's threats to revive his Shi'ite militia and protests by his Sadrist bloc are testing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fragile coalition government over the divisive issue of whether American troops should remain on Iraqi soil.

The remaining 47,000 U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq at the end of the year. But Maliki has called on the country's political leaders to discuss whether a contingent should stay on to support and train local armed forces.

In Sadr's impoverished Sadr City stronghold, his supporters -- wearing uniforms in the red, white and black of Iraq's flag -- marched in orderly blocks down a main street, stamping over U.S., British and Israeli flags painted on the tarmac.

Others waved banners proclaiming "No to the Occupation" and "The people want occupiers out," but the carefully stage-managed event was peaceful despite the fiery rhetoric.

"I came here on the orders of Moqtada al-Sadr to help kick out the occupiers from our country," said Alaa Hussein, 21, a student taking part. "If the government keeps American troops here we will consider them an illegitimate government."

Sadr, whose Medhi Army militia once fought against U.S. troops in the years following the 2003 invasion, is a powerful member of Maliki's coalition and he controls 39 seats in the 325-member parliament made up of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs.

The cleric has rallied supporters several times since April when he threatened to revive his militia. A Sadr split would severely weaken Maliki, but most other blocs appear to accept there will need to be some continued U.S. military presence.

More than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, violence has fallen sharply, but bombings, attacks and killings happen daily from a lingering Islamist Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias.

U.S. officials say Washington would consider an extension of military presence in the OPEC nation, especially with Iraqi air and naval forces still weak and the White House keen to reassure allies in the region as instability roils the Gulf.

Washington says Iraq must decide within weeks whether it wants U.S. troops to stay on to give the military time to prepare for withdrawal. But U.S. and Iraqi officials have offered no figure on how many troops could end up staying.

U.S. troops have played a role in easing tensions between majority Arabs and minority Kurds in the oil-producing northern Kurdish enclave, and are advising Iraqi forces protecting strategic sites, such as the southern oil port of Basra.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Myra MacDonald)