US seeking to `occupy` Mideast: Iraqi cleric

Muqtada al-Sadr said he`s not satisfied with US President`s pledge to pull all US troops from Iraq by year-end.

Baghdad: US plans to station troops across the Mideast after withdrawing from Iraq amount to occupying other Islamic countries, Iraq`s most outspoken anti-American cleric said in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he`s not satisfied with President Barack Obama`s pledge to pull all US troops from Iraq by the end of the year, calling it a partial withdrawal because of the thousands of diplomats and security guards who will stay behind.

"The American occupation will stay in Iraq under different names," al-Sadr told Al-Arabiya TV in his first interview since Obama announced the troop pullout last month.

Al-Sadr noted the Pentagon`s recent reminders that it will keep an estimated 40,000 troops across the region.

"America is not only occupying Iraq but also other Islamic countries," he said. "Occupying Iraq means occupying what is around Iraq, and then to control the Middle East."

The Pentagon is preparing to boost the number of US forces just across the Iraqi border in Kuwait and across the region to prevent a power vacuum when the tens of thousands of US forces who have served in Iraq are gone.

There are currently 33,000 US troops in Iraq.

US Army Major General Jeffrey S Buchanan, the chief American military spokesman in Iraq, told a news conference on Thursday that US troops stationed around the Mideast are there as part of a partnership with their host nations.

Al-Sadr`s political followers wield heavy influence in Iraq`s Parliament. His militia has been bent on driving the US out of Iraq with rocket attacks, backed with Iranian funds and training.

Over the last year, and since returning from exile in Iran, he has sought to present himself as something of a statesman promoting Iraqi nationalism.

In the interview, he said his followers have slowed their attacks on US forces in recent months "in order not to give them a pretext for staying”.

"I say to the American soldier: Get out for good," al-Sadr told the TV channel.

The US still plans to train Iraqi security forces after the withdrawal, although almost entirely with civilian contractors working with the US embassy in Baghdad.

A spate of bombs targeting security forces that killed at least 10 people and wounded dozens on Thursday served as a reminder of how vulnerable the country remains.

In the deadliest attack, a pair of near-simultaneous blasts killed six security guards who were waiting in line to pick up their paychecks outside an Iraqi military base near Baqouba, 35 miles (60 kilometres) northeast of Baghdad. At least 35 people were wounded in the double bombing, said Diyala Health Directorate spokesman Faris al-Azawi.

All of the dead were members of Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, a Sunni militia that sided with US forces against al Qaeda in a major turning point of the war. The Sahwa have since been targeted by insurgents, who call them traitors.

An Iraqi Army intelligence officer said authorities have reliable intelligence that al Qaeda sleeper cells plan to launch attacks as US troops withdraw and afterward. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the intelligence is confidential, said al Qaeda aims to show Iraqis it is still able to strike.

Officials long have said that al Qaeda`s main goal in Iraq is to destabilise the Shi’ite-led government. Among the terror group`s top targets have been government and security officials.

Later on Thursday, a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad`s upscale and mostly Shi’ite neighbourhood of Karradah, killing two passers-by. Police who rushed to the scene were hit with a second blast, killing two policemen and wounding three others. Also, four passers-by were wounded.

The casualties were confirmed by a medic at Ibn al-Nafis hospital. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.

The attacks were examples of the low-scale but deadly violence that persists across Iraq on a near daily basis, although violence has dropped dramatically across the country since 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of civil war. Some officials have warned of an increase in attacks as the US troops leave.

Bureau Report

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