Iraq Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr urges Iraqis to unite

It is still very fierce anti-American rhetoric... but there is a new moderation

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Anti-US Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has told an enthusiastic crowd of followers in Iraq to give the country's new government a chance.

The radical cleric was making his first speech since returning to his stronghold in Najaf after nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran.

Last month his movement secured a deal to join the new government with seven ministries and 39 seats in parliament.

He urged resistance against "occupiers of Iraq" and led chants against the US.

His militia, the Mehdi Army, clashed several times with US and Iraqi forces after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Statesmanlike performance?

At the start of his short speech, the cleric called on the crowd of thousands to chant "No, no, to America", rejecting all occupiers and denouncing Israel.

"We are still fighters," he told the crowd. "We are still resisting, we resist the occupation, militarily, culturally and all other kinds of resistance."

Analysis

At 39, his black beard is now tinged with grey after his four years of self-imposed exile in Qom. The fiery, anti-US rhetoric was still there, but a more moderate and responsible note carried through Moqtada Sadr's first big speech since he came back to Najaf.

The normally dour and scowling cleric, dressed in black turban and robes, even smiled as he led the crowd in chanting religious and militant slogans. That aside, his main message to the Iraqis was clear.

"Whatever happened between brothers happened, but that page must be forgotten and turned forever," he told them, urging them never to raise their hands against one another.

He made two reassuring references to current security developments in the country - attacks on its Christian minority, and a wave of assassinations of officials by gunmen using silenced weapons.

Moqtada Sadr gave every sign of supporting the new government, in which his followers have seven seats. But Nouri Maliki's previous administration was also backed by the Sadrists at the outset - only for them to pull out a year later.

But he included the caveat that arms were for "people of weapons only" - seemingly endorsing the authority of Iraq's army and police force.

The cleric exhorted Iraqis to forget what happened in the past and stand shoulder to shoulder, helping the government to provide services.

"The Iraqi government has been formed," he said. "If it serves the Iraqi people, and provides services, we will stand by it, not against it.

"All of us will be with the Iraqi government if it serves the Iraqi people. If it doesn't, there are political - only political - ways to reform the government.

"This is a new government, we must give it a chance to prove that it can serve the people," he added, in what analysts suggest was a more statesmanlike performance than had been seen previously.

Sunnis will be reassured by that message, says the BBC's Jim Muir in Baghdad, but they will want to see it turned into reality.

Situation changed

Having arrived back in the country on Wednesday, on Thursday the cleric visited one of the holiest sites of Shia Islam, the shrine of the Imam Ali.

Start Quote

Moqtada Sadr speaking in Najaf, 8 January 2011

"If [the government] serves the Iraqi people, and provides services, we will stand by it, not against it”

End Quote Moqtada Sadr Shia cleric

Thousands of his supporters gathered at the site, chanting loudly and causing a stampede as they jostled to see him.

He later issued a statement criticising their behaviour, begging his supporters "to be disciplined, and not to shout excessive slogans".

Our correspondent says that despite his near four-year absence, the charismatic Moqtada Sadr has lost none of his influence on the largely impoverished Shia population of Iraq.

But the situation in Iraq has changed since the cleric fled the country after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

His militia was blamed for the abduction, torture and killing of thousands of Sunnis during the sectarian carnage of 2006 and 2007.

In 2008, the militia clashed with the Iraqi army, commanded by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and many members were arrested; Moqtada Sadr announced it was laying down arms and disbanding.

But the cleric's support was vital in securing Mr Maliki's second term in office, and his movement is now closely involved in the new government.

With the US preparing to withdraw all its forces in 2011, the emphasis in Iraq is now on supporting the government and promoting unity and prosperity, says our correspondent.

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