x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Iraqi Shiite cleric Al Sadr tells followers to stop attacking US soldiers

Shiite leader warns US troop withdrawal would be delayed by violence, but says if withdrawal does not happen 'the military operations will be resumed in a new and tougher way'.

BAGHDAD // Muqtada Al Sadr is urging his followers to stop attacking US troops in Iraq so that their withdrawal from the country is not slowed down, a call meant to ramp up pressure on Baghdad's political leaders who are considering asking some US forces to stay.

In a statement on his website, the Shiite cleric told his militias to halt attacks against US forces till the withdrawal is finished at the end of the year as required under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad.

"Out of my desire to complete Iraq's independence and to finish the withdrawal of the occupation forces from our holy lands, I am obliged to halt military operations of the honest Iraqi resistance until the withdrawal of the occupation forces is complete," Mr Al Sadr said in the statement posted on Saturday. The Sadrist MP Mushraq Naji confirmed the statement yesterday.

However, Mr Al Sadr said, "if the withdrawal doesn't happen the military operations will be resumed in a new and tougher way".

The statement comes after last week's notice by US officials in Baghdad, announcing the start of the withdrawal.

There are currently about 45,000 US forces in Iraq.

However, US and Iraqi leaders are currently weighing whether some American troops should remain past the December 31 deadline as Baghdad continues to struggle with instability and burgeoning influence from neighbouring Iran. Last month, Iraqi leaders began negotiating with US officials in Baghdad to keep at least several thousand troops in Iraq to continue training the nation's shaky security forces.

Officials in Washington say President Barack Obama is willing to keep between 3,000 and 10,000 US troops in Iraq. But with fewer than four months before the final deadline, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and parliament still have not indicated how many US troops Iraq might need, how long they would stay, or exactly what they would be doing.

Other Iraqi officials privately say they want American troops to continue training the nation's security forces for months, if not years, to come. The president of Iraq's northern Kurdish region this week pleaded for US forces to stay to ward off threats of renewed sectarian violence.

Many Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, share that fear.

Sheikh Manshad Al Ghezi of the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah said in a recent interview: "As for me, and the sheikhs of Nasiriyah, we want the US army to stay. We are afraid of civil war. All the parties and groups in Iraq are armed and the Iraqi army cannot manage to bring security to Iraq and stop the fighting among these parties."