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After exile, Iraq cleric calls Americans 'enemy'

Muqtada al-Sadr on Saturday lambasted the American "enemy" during his first speech since returning to Iraq from exile.

The young Shiite cleric once blamed for some of the country's worst sectarian violence also told his followers that such bloodshed would no longer be tolerated and appealed to them to show unity in the face of the country's many problems.

The 35-minute speech in the Shiite holy city of Najaf was a public debut for the young cleric after nearly four years in voluntary exile in neighboring Iran. After walking out to a podium draped in black cloth, al-Sadr had to wait almost five minutes for the crowd of around 20,000 to quiet down enough for him to speak.

Those in Najaf and thousands of Iraqis across the nation watching on TV heard a speech focused on the issue that has been the cornerstone of the cleric's ideology and popularity: resistance to any American presence in Iraq.

"We are still resisters, and we are still resisting the occupier militarily and culturally and by all the means of resistance. Repeat after me: No, no for the occupier. Let's have all the world hear that Iraqi people reject the occupier," he shouted.

The crowd shouted along with him, pumping their fists in the air.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, al-Sadr quickly became one of the most vocal people rallying against the Americans. His Mahdi Army militia, armed with AK-47s and a deep devotion to its leader, battled U.S. forces through the streets of Najaf in 2004, when other Shiite leaders were cooperating with the Americans.

In 2006 and 2007, when sectarian bloodshed was at its height, his militia members were accused of some of the most vicious attacks against Sunnis, including torture with drills and electrocution.

Al-Sadr left for Iran in 2007, in part to bolster his theological credentials -- a necessity for a religious leader in this Shiite-dominated country -- but also to escape an arrest warrant for allegedly killing another cleric. While he studied and deepened his ties to Iran, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent in the army to crush al-Sadr's militias in the southern city of Basra and eastern Baghdad.

After the bruising defeat, al-Sadr's influence appeared to have exhausted itself.

But his movement regrouped, and a disciplined performance in the March election earned the Sadrists 40 seats in parliament, political clout and a return to prominence. His decision to throw his support behind al-Maliki all but gave the prime minister a second term after months of negotiations.

In return for his support, al-Sadr got eight senior posts in government and the warrant for his arrest no longer seems to be an issue.

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