A powerful anti-American Shiite cleric in Iraq with thousands of loyal followers threatened Sunday that U.S. forces who stay past the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline are fair game to attack.
Iraqi officials, worried about a potential backlash if U.S. troops remain in the country, have tried to portray any American force that does not withdraw as trainers of the still-growing Iraqi military rather than as combat troops.
While the security situation in Iraq has improved over the past few years, attacks are still commonplace. In June alone, 15 U.S. soldiers were killed, making it the bloodiest month for the U.S. military in Iraq in two years. Nearly all of them were killed in attacks by Shiite militias bent on forcing out American troops on schedule.
Muqtada al-Sadr's comments suggested that even a limited training mandate would not be acceptable to his Shiite militia, which has stepped up rocket and bomb attacks against American forces as the December deadline approaches.
"They will be treated as anyone who stays in Iraq, as a tyrannical occupier that must be resisted by military means," al-Sadr said in a statement on his website.
His comments follow last week's decision by Iraqi government to open talks with Washington to discuss keeping a number of American forces in the country.
A military force that trains Iraqi troops would be a continuation of what American troops partly do in Iraq now. However, U.S. forces currently also assist in Iraqi counterterrorism operations and, if under attack, defend themselves.
Al-Sadr has forged his reputation with thousands of poor Shiite followers in Baghdad and southern Iraq as a fierce opponent of foreign troops in Iraq. His power base rests in the Baghdad neighborhood called Sadr City, named for his father. His nationalist rhetoric and his opposition to U.S. forces resonates with many Iraqi Shiites.
His latest statement was also aimed at Iraqi political leaders, particularly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"The government which agrees to them staying, even if it is for training, is a weak government," al-Sadr said.
The prime minister and al-Sadr have clashed in the past, and in 2008 al-Maliki sent his forces, with American help, into the southern city of Basra and eastern Baghdad to crush al-Sadr's militia.
But al-Sadr, under heavy Iranian pressure, backed al-Maliki last fall when the prime minister was in a tough re-election contest against a Sunni-supported rival.
Al-Sadr's support helped the prime minister secure a second term.
Meanwhile Sunday, a woman and two children under 10 years old were among the dead in a bomb attack, according to a doctor at a nearby hospital. Officials said four bombs were planted in Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad.