BAGHDAD — An anti-American cleric is urging his followers to stop attacking U.S. troops in Iraq so that their withdrawal from the country isn't slowed, a call meant to ramp up pressure on Baghdad's political leaders who are considering asking some American forces to stay.
In a statement posted on his website, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his militias to halt attacks against U.S. forces until the withdrawal finishes at the end of the year as required under a security agreement.
"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," al-Sadr said in the statement, posted late Saturday. Sadrist lawmaker Mushraq Naji confirmed the statement on Sunday.
However, al-Sadr warned that "if the withdrawal doesn't happen … the military operations will be resumed in a new and tougher way." Last week U.S. officials in Baghdad announced the start of the withdrawal. There are currently about 45,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders are weighing whether some American troops should remain past the Dec. 31 deadline as Baghdad struggles with instability and burgeoning influence from neighboring Iran. Last month, Iraqi leaders began negotiating to keep at least several thousand U.S. 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 there.
After more than eight years of war, many Iraqis are ready to see U.S. troops go. Al-Sadr's followers strongly oppose a continued U.S. military presence.
Still, other Iraqi officials privately say they want American troops to continue training security forces for months, if not years. The president of Iraq's northern Kurdish region this week pleaded for U.S. forces to stay to ward off threats of renewed sectarian violence.
Many Iraqis — both Sunnis and Shiites — share that fear.