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Attacks on US forces still an option, says Muqtada al-Sadr upon return to Iraq

In his first public address in Iraq since leaving the country almost four years ago, fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr this weekend led thousands of followers in chants of 'No to America.'

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / January 10, 2011

Anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (C) visits the holy shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala, 70 miles south of Baghdad, January 9.

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Baghdad

Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who changed the course of Iraqi history, has made a triumphant return, putting the United States and the Iraqi government on notice that he intends to play an even wider if unpredictable role in the country’s future.

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In his first public address here since slipping out of the country almost four years ago, the young cleric on Saturday led thousands of cheering, weeping followers who thronged the holy city of Najaf in chants of "No to America."

While his denunciation of the United States has become obligatory for a movement that has defined itself by trying to drive out US forces, the young cleric made clear that attacks continued to be an option.

“We are still resisting the occupation militarily, culturally and by any other means necessary,” he told followers who had camped out overnight to hear him speak.

He also made clear with a call for discipline, including in who could carry arms, that this was not the organization he headed in 2004, when young men armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades roamed the streets shooting at American tanks.

Sadr's rise

Mr. Sadr rose to international prominence when the Mahdi Army, his paramilitary force rose up against US forces in Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad, mounting the biggest challenge to American forces since they toppled Saddam Hussein. The United States pledged to either capture or kill him before he agreed to a cease-fire.

Three years later he resurfaced in Iran, to continue his religious education in the holy city of Qom.

But it is Sadr’s most recent incarnation as a political figure that is expected to have the most impact on Iraq, including his surprise return a year before officials expected him following the withdrawal of US troops.

“First of all, he was no longer scared the Americans would go after him because it’s not so much in the American hands,” says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “I think the reason he came back is strictly political. Even though the occupation ends next year…the real time is now. Because now there is a new government and he is an instrumental part of it.”

Political power broker

Sadr has enough seats in the new Iraqi parliament that his grudging support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a deal believed brokered by Iran allowed Maliki to retain his position. He could also potentially gather enough support to bring down the unpopular prime minister if he chose.

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