NAJAF, Iraq — An anti-American cleric whose militia was once the nemesis of U.S. troops in Iraq said Saturday that his followers were still resisting the U.S. forces militarily, telling the adoring crowd: "We are still fighters."
But Muqtada al-Sadr, now a formidable force in Iraqi politics and not just a militia leader, tempered his fiery words by saying the new Iraqi government should be given a chance to get American forces out of the country in a "suitable" way.
In his first speech since returning from almost four years of self-imposed exile in Iran, the 37-year-old cleric whose Shiite militias once battled U.S. troops and terrorized Iraqi Sunnis stopped short of explicitly urging violence against Americans.
But he left open the possibility that some 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could be targeted before they are set to leave at the end of this year.
The enigmatic al-Sadr, who addressed his supporters in front of a big poster of his father, the revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, started his speech in the holy Shiite city of Najaf with a poem mourning the slaying of Imam Hussein, a central figure of Shiite Islam.
'Target only the occupier'
"Let the whole world hear that we reject America. No, no to the occupier," al-Sadr said during his 35-minute speech in Najaf, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad. "We don't kill Iraqis — our hands do not kill Iraqis. But we target only the occupier with all the means of resistance."
"We are still resisters and we are still resisting the occupier militarily and culturally and by all the means of resistance," he added.
Al-Sadr has long branded the U.S. military as occupiers in Iraq, and Washington considers him a security threat.
Yet after winning 40 seats in March parliamentary elections, al-Sadr's political muscle makes him a force that cannot be ignored.
His movement took eight top leadership posts in the new coalition government, which was created after months of negotiation following the election.
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Addressing an adoring and frenzied crowd of thousands — some had slept in the street outside his house for days — al-Sadr called the U.S., Israel and Britain "our common enemies."
"Maybe during the past few days and months, we forgot the resistance and the expel of the occupier as we were busy with politics," he said.
"Our aim is to expel the occupier with any means. The resistance does not mean that everyone can carry a weapon. The weapon is only for the people of the weapons," he added.
The cleric seemed eager to shed the image of a rabble-rouser and appear statesmanlike.
"Open the way before the new government to prove that it is for serving the people," he said.
"If the government serves the people, their security and safety, we are with it," he added.
'Heard nothing new'
U.S. Embassy spokesman David J. Ranz brushed off al-Sadr's remarks. "We listened to the speech, but heard nothing new," Ranz said.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh declined to comment on al-Sadr's speech. But lawmakers called it the cleric's opening gambit to join Iraq's political power circles, and downplayed suggestions that al-Sadr's remarks might incite violence.
"I don't think that Muqtada is calling now to carry weapons to attack the foreign forces, he's a supporter to the political process," said Shiite lawmaker Mohammed Sadoun, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law political coalition.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said al-Sadr appeared to be seeking more political influence without having to resort to violence. He said the use of the word "resistance," likely signaled that the cleric and his followers are not going away.
"If he means violence, then this will complicate the political process, destabilize Iraq, embarrass al-Maliki and prevent al-Sadr from gaining more influence," Othman said. "There is nothing to gain from violence."
A security agreement between Washington and Baghdad requires all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of the year.
Although both al-Maliki and the Obama administration have maintained the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops will leave by then, officials in both nations have acknowledged that Iraq is not yet ready to protect its borders from possible invasion.
That's led to widespread speculation that al-Maliki ultimately will ask a small number of American forces to remain.
"The new government must work to get the occupier out of the country, in a suitable way," al-Sadr said. "We heard a pledge from the government in this regard, and we are waiting for it to honor its word."
Al-Sadr rose to power after the March 2003 invasion and has since been revered by poor Iraqi Shiites.
His Mahdi Army gunmen were a formidable foe of American troops and Iraqi government forces between 2004 and 2008, but al-Sadr fled to Iran in 2007 under threat of arrest for allegedly killing another cleric.
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Although absent from Iraq for four years, he has maintained strict control over the political and military wings of his movement from his base in Iran.
It's not clear whether al-Sadr will remain in Iraq or return to Iran. Followers and detractors hung on his words, delivered outside his ancestral home, for signs of where he plans to take his political movement.
"We will shake the ground under the Americans, if they will not withdraw," Aqeel Faisal, a 40-year-old shopkeeper from the southern city of Basra, said in Najaf.
"We will also shake the ground under the government, if it fails to deliver its pledges to serve the Iraqi people," said Faisal, who came to get a glimpse of al-Sadr and hear his words.
"We are like crazy people who lost their father for a while," said shop owner Samir Atwan, who closed his store in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City to join the black-clad thousands who thronged outside the cleric's home.
Atwan said he slept on the street in Najaf for three days in hope of seeing al-Sadr.
"All these people left their jobs and their shops," he said.
Nearby, a blind man led a crowd of young men who waited hours in the cool January morning amid cries of "Yes, yes, to our leader."
It was only with al-Sadr's support — and with the blessing of Iran — that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to muster enough support from former opponents to win a second term in office after his political party fell short in the March elections.
The alliance was surprising to Iraq's political observers, and especially to Sadrists who were crushed by al-Maliki's security forces in Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra.
But Iranian leaders pushed for the detente that gave al-Sadr new sway over al-Maliki and led Iraq's Sunni minority to fear they would remain without a voice in the new government.
In the Sunni-dominated Baghdad suburb of Azamiyah, Majid al-Adhami watched with apprehension the speech he described as "directed to his followers rather than to the Iraqi people."
"He came from abroad with a message from his masters that he will continue what he and his followers used to do," said al-Adhami, 57, a retiree and father of five. "He's saying now that I used to control the street and now I'm controlling both the street and politics."
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.