The radical Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his followers to desist from attacking U.S. forces before their scheduled withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year.
In a statement quoted by AFP, Sadr said that for Iraq to recover its independence, it was "indispensable to halt all armed resistance operations until the complete withdrawal" of U.S. forces.
The statement said that military operations of Sadr's followers "will end definitively" if the pullout was completed to a point where not a single U.S. soldier remained.
But the anti-American cleric, whose Imam al-Mahdi Army militia fought U.S. forces until 2008, warned that if they did not depart on time, military operations would resume and be "very severe."
"Because of my eagerness to accomplish the independence of Iraq and have the invader forces withdraw from our holy land, it has become imperative for me to stop military operations...until the invader forces complete their withdrawal," Sadr said in a statement read out by his spokesman, Salah al-Ubaidi.
"If not, the military operation will start again and with new approaches, and it will be very severe."
The statement follows a warning from the new U.S. Army chief, General Ray Odierno, against leaving too large a force in Iraq after the year-end deadline. He said too many remaining boots on the ground could feed the perception of a U.S. "occupation."
U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw fully by December 31, but Iraq's leaders are currently negotiating with the United States on whether to retain U.S. military trainers beyond 2011.
Sadr warned last month that U.S. military trainers who stayed in Iraq after the end of the year would be targets.
About 43,000 remaining troops are due to leave Iraq under a security agreement between the two countries.
compiled from agency reports