BAGHDAD — U.S. 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 Thursday.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he’s not satisfied with President Barack Obama’s pledge to pull all U.S. 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 U.S. forces just across the Iraqi border in Kuwait and across the region to prevent a power vacuum when the tens of thousands of U.S. forces who have served in Iraq are gone.
There are currently 33,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the chief American military spokesman in Iraq, told a news conference Thursday that U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. still plans to train Iraqi security forces after the withdrawal, although almost entirely with civilian contractors working with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
A spate of bombs targeting security forces that killed at least 10 people and wounded dozens 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 kilometers) 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 U.S. forces against al-Qaida 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-Qaida sleeper cells plan to launch attacks as U.S. troops withdraw and afterward. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the intelligence is confidential, said al-Qaida aims to show Iraqis it is still able to strike.
Officials long have said that al-Qaida’s main goal in Iraq is to destabilize the Shiite-led government. Among the terror group’s top targets have been government and security officials.
Later Thursday, a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad’s upscale and mostly Shiite neighborhood 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 authorized 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 U.S. troops leave.
Associated Press writers Mazin Yahya and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.