NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Followers of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets on Friday after prayers to condemn a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and demand U.S. forces leave the country.
Around 2,000 supporters of the fiery anti-American cleric demonstrated in the town of Kufa, chanting anti-U.S. slogans a day after Biden paid his first visit to Iraq since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was reappointed.
“In our protest, we demand that visits like Biden’s to Iraq should not be repeated and that the occupier leaves,” said Mohammed Abbas, 25, a day laborer.
Sadr’s movement has won a powerful place in Maliki’s new government, with seven ministries.
His clout will make it difficult for Maliki to contemplate an extension of the U.S. military presence beyond the end of the year, when the U.S. forces that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003 must withdraw under the terms of a security pact.
Biden visited Iraq on Thursday for talks with Iraqi officials, his seventh visit since January 2009. Iraqi officials said he and Maliki did not discuss keeping any U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline.
Sadr, whose militia fought fierce battles with U.S. troops after the invasion and was blamed for much of the sectarian bloodshed that gripped Iraq, returned home last week from years of self-imposed exile in Iran.
In his first public speech in the holy city of Najaf last Saturday, he urged his supporters to denounce the U.S. presence and demand the government of which his movement is a part live up to a promise to make the U.S. military withdraw on time.
“We have responded to Sayyed Sadr’s call and demonstrated against the United States, the occupation, and the unwelcome visit of the U.S. vice president to Iraq,” said Ali Saad, 35, also a day laborer.
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq fell below 50,000 last August when the U.S. military switched its role to advising and assisting its Iraqi counterparts, rather than leading the fight against a weakened but still lethal insurgency.
Sadr attended Friday prayers in Kufa, site of a revered Shi’ite mosque, but did not deliver a sermon. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani paid Sadr a visit on Friday.
Reporting by Khaled Farhan; Writing by Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Michael Christie and Tim Pearce