x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sadr followers rally against US army staying in Iraq

Iraqi PM Nuri al Maliki has called for debate over troop presence but Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr has threatened to Sadr revive militia if US troops stay.

BAGHDAD // The anti-US Iraqi cleric Moqtada al Sadr brought thousands of Shiite supporters onto Baghdad streets today in a show of force against any extension of the US military presence in Iraq past a year-end deadline.

Mr al Sadr's threats to revive his Shi ite militia and protests by his Sadrist bloc are testing the Iraqi prime minister Nuri al Maliki's fragile coalition government over the divisive issue of whether American troops should remain on Iraqi soil.

The remaining 47,000 US troops are due to leave Iraq at the end of the year. But Mr al Maliki has called on the country's political leaders to discuss whether a contingent should stay on to support and train local armed forces.

In Sadr's impoverished Sadr City stronghold, his supporters,- wearing uniforms in the red, white and black of Iraq's flag, marched in orderly blocks down a main street, stamping over US, British and Israeli flags painted on the tarmac.

Some waved banners proclaiming "No to the Occupation" while others, including young children, performed acrobatic martial arts kicks to break polystyrene panels, some painted with American flags, others with the words "Corruption" and "Terror".

Alaa Hussein, 21, a student taking part, said: "I came here on the orders of Moqtada al Sadr to help kick out the occupiers from our country. If the government keeps American troops here we will consider them an illegitimate government."

Mr al Sadr, whose Medhi Army militia once fought U.S. troops in the years following the 2003 invasion, is a powerful member of Mr a Maliki's coalition and controls 39 seats in the 325-member parliament made up of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs.

The cleric has held rallies several times since April when he threatened to "unfreeze" his militia. A split by Mr al Sadr would severely weaken Mr al Maliki, but most other blocs appear closer to accepting that some continued US military presence is needed.

US officials say Washington would consider extending its military presence in the country. Iraqi air and naval forces are still weak and the White House is keen to reassure allies in the region at a time of instability in the Gulf.

Mr al Sadr told BBC Arabic television service that some parts of the Medhi Army were still actively targeting US bases and vehicles and dismissed as a pretext any claims that American troops needed to stay to train and back Iraqi forces.

"As long as they stay in Iraq, we will resist them," he said, without giving further details.

More than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, violence has fallen sharply, but bombings, attacks and killings happen daily from a lingering Islamist Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias.

Baghdad's Green Zone, a high security area that is home to the US embassy and a symbol for some Iraqis of a foreign occupation, is still the target of occasional rocket attacks.

Two US soldiers were killed this week in central Iraq, though it was not clear who was responsible.

Washington says Iraq must decide within weeks whether it wants US troops to stay on, to give the military time to prepare for withdrawal. US and Iraqi officials have not said how many US troops might stay.

US forces have helped reduce tension between majority Arabs and minority Kurds in the oil-producing northern Kurdish enclave, and are advising Iraqi forces protecting strategic sites, such as the southern oil port of Basra.

(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Tim Pearce)