Iraqi cleric's followers demand U.S. troops leave

Sat Apr 23, 2011 5:13pm GMT

* Followers say they are ready to fight again

* Sadr said he will unleash militia if U.S. doesn't leave

By Muhanad Mohammed

BAGHDAD, April 23 (Reuters) - Hundreds of followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets of Baghdad on Saturday, trampling U.S. flags and vowing to escalate military resistance if U.S. troops fail to leave Iraq this year.

It was the second major demonstration by Sadr's followers in recent days after the cleric issued a warning on April 9 he would unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. troops were not out of Iraq by Dec. 31. More than 5,000 marched in the streets of Basra, Iraq's southern oil hub, on Thursday.

"I am ready to fight an American again and I am ready to die for Iraq," Haider al-Bahadili, a 33-year-old Mehdi Army member, said at Saturday's demonstration in western Baghdad's Shula district. "Decisions of Moqtada are orders. We must apply them."

The rally came a day after Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to the capital Iraq's leaders must move quickly if they want U.S. forces to stay beyond year-end.

About 47,000 American troops remain to advise and train Iraqi forces. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said his police and army are ready to provide security and foreign troops will no longer be needed after Dec. 31.   Continued...

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