BAGHDAD Iraq's fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr will "escalate military resistance" and unleash his Mehdi Army militia if U.S. troops fail to leave Iraq as scheduled this year, his aides said on Saturday.
On the 8th anniversary of the day U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, senior Sadr aide Hazem al-Araji told tens of thousands of followers: "We say to the Black House (White House), 'we are all time bombs and the detonators are at the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr.' American troops must definitely leave our lands."
Men, women and children -- many waving Iraq's black, white and red flag or singing songs -- gathered in Baghdad's Mustansiriya square to mark the occasion. The mood was festive, and vendors milled around, selling ice cream, water and juice.
Some of the followers carried signs reading "Occupiers Out" and "No to America." Others burned U.S., Israeli and British flags, or draped white funeral shrouds over their shoulders -- signifying they were willing to die for their beliefs.
As the crowd cheered wildly, spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi read out a speech from the influential Shi'ite cleric, warning an extension of the U.S. "occupation" would have two consequences.
"First, the escalation of military resistance work and the withdrawal of the order freezing the Mehdi Army, in a new statement issued later. Second, escalation of peaceful and public resistance through sit-ins and protests, to say that the people want the exit of the occupation," he said.
Sadr is currently in Iran, a source close to him said.
The warning came after visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed the Iraqi government to decide if it wanted U.S. troops to stay on and help fend off a festering insurgency.
Ali Mohammed, a 39-year-old government employee at the protest who had wrapped an Iraqi flag around his head, said a delayed withdrawal would trigger extraordinary violence.
"They must understand that our resistance now is peaceful, but it will turn into actions beyond imagination," he said.
Some 47,000 remaining forces are scheduled to leave by year's end under a security agreement between the two countries.
Sadr's Mehdi Army militia fought U.S. troops during the height of Iraq's sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07, when tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent government troops to crush the militia in 2008.
U.S. officials and Sunni Arab leaders accused the Mehdi Army of being behind many of the sectarian killings in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Sadr disavowed violence against fellow Iraqis and in 2008 ordered his militia to become a humanitarian group. The black-clad fighters have maintained a relatively low profile since but U.S. officials still regard them with suspicion.
Sadr's political movement won strong support in elections last year and overcame animosity toward Maliki to join his coalition government, formed in December after nine months of tense negotiations between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
Sadr, who fled Iraq in 2006 or 2007 after an arrest warrant was issued for him, has lived and studied in neighboring Iran in recent years. He returned in early January but did not stay long before heading back to Iran.
Sadr and his senior leaders have the ability to turn out hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic followers.
Maliki has said foreign troops will not be needed in Iraq after the U.S. security pact expires at year-end but U.S. and Iraqi military officials have said Iraq's fledgling army and police still need help, particularly with air defense to protect against external threats.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Jim Loney and Caroline Drees; Editing by Mike Nesbit)