Iraq Cleric Warns of War if U.S. Presence Extended
NAJAF, Iraq - A radical anti-U.S. Shiite cleric warned of "war" if U.S. forces stayed in Iraq beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal, in a brief statement viewed on Aug. 17.
Asked whether he would negotiate directly or indirectly with U.S. forces over a security training mission to last beyond the end of this year, the cleric replied simply: "No, there will be war."
Moqtada al-Sadr did not give any further details in the written reply to a follower's question, released by his office in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
The statement was at least the fourth message in the past two weeks from Sadr calling for American forces to leave the country, following an Aug. 3 announcement by Iraqi political leaders that they would open talks with Washington over a training mission.
On Aug. 6, he warned that a post-2011 U.S. presence "should be resisted through military means".
About 47,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Iraq, all of whom must leave by the end of the year under the terms of a 2008 bilateral security pact, which would remain in force if a training deal is not agreed.
U.S. and Iraqi military officials assess Iraq's security forces capable of maintaining internal security, but say the country is lacking in terms of capacity to defend its borders, airspace and territorial waters.
Sadr's movement has 40 deputies in parliament and five ministers in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's national unity government.
Before it was disbanded in 2008, Sadr's Mahdi Army militia numbered some 60,000 fighters with fierce loyalty to the cleric. It fought bloody battles with the U.S. Army in the years following the 2003 invasion which ousted Saddam Hussein. On July 10, Sadr said he would not revive the Mahdi Army, complaining it had been infested with "criminals."