Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Thursday set doubts over a complete withdrawal by the U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
In an exclusive interview aired by Al Arabiya, Sadr said he would resist any American presence in Iraq, including a civilian one, beyond year-end when all U.S. forces depart nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia once battled U.S. and Iraqi troops, has opposed any U.S. military footprint and his bloc is a key part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s fragile coalition.
“We do not accept any kind of U.S. presence in Iraq, whether it is military or not,” Sadr told Al Arabiya.
“If they stay in Iraq, through a military or non-military (presence) ... we will consider them an occupation and we will resist them whatever the price will be. Even a civilian presence, we reject it,” the cleric said.
Sadr underlined that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will not create security vacuum in Iraq. “The Iraqi government is capable of protecting the country in collaboration with the Iraqis,” he said.
United States President Barack Obama said on Oct. 21 all remaining U.S. troops, currently around 33,000, would be withdrawn from Iraq by Dec. 31 after Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on immunity for American soldiers.
But a huge U.S. embassy will be maintained in Baghdad along with consular operations in Arbil in the northern Kurdish zone and in the southern oil city Basra.
On his part, Sadr said that he was opposing to the opening of any U.S. consulate or embassy in his country, unless there is a full withdrawal of the troops from Iraq. “Any form of American presence in Iraq is not acceptable.” He added that there should be a balanced relationship between Iraq and the United States.
In September, Sadr called on his followers to suspend attacks against U.S. troops to ensure they leave Iraq by the year-end deadline.
Although overall violence in Iraq has fallen from the peak of sectarian fighting in 2006-7, Iraqi security forces continue to battle a stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias still capable of lethal attacks.
(Translated from Arabic by Abeer Tayel)