NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) - Iraq's firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr has made a rare public appearance in the holy city of Najaf to call for restraint amid sectarian tension between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
"Any action targeting unarmed civilians is forbidden under any circumstances," Sadr said Monday during a news conference, the first held by the young cleric since the fierce fighting that pitted his militia against US troops last year in Najaf.
"We reject these terror operations, whether they are carried out by the occupiers or others," he added.
"The occupiers are trying to sow division among the Iraqi people, but there are no Sunnis and Shiites. Iraqis are one."
The comments he made from his house in the Shiite city's Hannana neighbourhood came against a backdrop of sectarian violence and a day after at least 46 bodies killed execution-style were found in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
Several of the victims were Sunnis and the repetition of such incidents has fueled fears that Shiite militias would no longer heed calls from their clerics to show restraint in the face of attacks by extremist Sunni groups.
The young cleric led one of the most serious challenges to the authority of the now-defunct US administration by igniting an uprising in southern and central Iraq against occupation troops.
The fighting culminated in a bloody weeks-long standoff around Najaf's Imam Ali shrine last August, before Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- the highest Shiite authority in Iraq -- brokered a solution.
Sadr has since shown interest in joining the political arena and officially agreed to disband his Mehdi Army. But the militia remains an organised force and the cleric has continued to speak out against the US troop presence.
"If occupation forces leave Iraq, there will be no ethnic conflict here, and I'm ready to fight terrorists wherever they are if the occupiers leave," he told reporters.
Edited by Thaqalain, 20 May 2005 - 09:11 AM.