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Radical cleric emerges for sermon

Al-Sadr renews demand for US troop pullout

KUFA, Iraq -- Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr resurfaced yesterday after months in hiding and delivered a fiery sermon in this Shi'ite Muslim holy city in which he reiterated his demand for the immediate departure of US forces and called for unity among Iraqis.

The US military, meanwhile, announced the deaths of eight US soldiers and one Marine, putting May on track to be one of the deadliest months for American troops in Iraq in years. At least 90 US troops have died this month.

Sadr's return to a public stage occurs at a time when he has been building his national profile, capitalizing on the political impasse gripping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Aides report that Sadr has reached out to Sunni leaders in recent months and purged extremist elements within his ranks. Last month, he pulled his six ministers out of Maliki's coalition Cabinet but did not withdraw his 30 legislators from the governing Shi'ite bloc.

Sadr also might want to reassert control over his Mahdi militia, in which divisions have emerged over his order to pull back and avoid a collision with the US military during the ongoing crackdown.

US officials have said that Sadr fled to Iran before the crackdown's launch Feb. 13. But the cleric's followers have maintained that he was hiding in Iraq.

An emotional crowd estimated at 6,000 people surged forward and showered Sadr with candies when he arrived at the western gate of Kufa mosque, surrounded by bodyguards.

Sadr delivered the midday sermon for the first time in more than four months. He began by asking his followers to chant three times: "No to injustice. No to Israel. No to America. No to the devils."

"I renew my request that the occupiers should withdraw or schedule their withdrawal," Sadr said. "The [Iraqi] government should not allow the occupiers to extend their stay in Iraq, not even for one more day."

At his Camp David retreat yesterday, President Bush signed a funding bill for military operations in Iraq after a bitter struggle with Democrats in Congress who sought unsuccessfully to tie the money to US troop withdrawals.

Word of the latest US deaths came hours after Bush warned that a bloody summer lay ahead. Military officers in Baghdad predict that insurgents will seek to inflict maximum casualties before Army General David H. Petraeus delivers a review of the troop buildup in September.

Two US soldiers were killed north of Baghdad, and a Marine died of noncombat causes in Anbar Province, the military reported early today. One of the soldiers was shot and killed in northern Baghdad Province; the second died in a roadside bombing in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of the capital. All three service members died yesterday.

The military said yesterday that three US soldiers were killed in roadside bombings in the capital and nearby areas. Two others were killed in explosions north of Baghdad, and a sixth soldier was hit by gunfire in volatile Diyala Province, the military said.

Hours after Sadr's speech, Wissam al-Waili, the leader of the cleric's Mahdi Army militia in Basra, was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him, police said. The death further stirred tensions in Shi'ite areas of southern Iraq.

His return to the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old cleric to regain control over his militia and to take advantage of the illness of a Shi'ite rival, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and went to Iran for treatment.

Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to deliver his sermon yesterday.

While the call for a US pullout was not new, Sadr's speech had nationalist overtones, criticizing the government for not providing services, appealing to his followers not to fight with Iraqi security forces, and reaching out to Sunnis.

Sadr did not address his reasons for returning.

However, during his time in absentia his militia appeared to have split into a faction calling itself the "noble Mahdi Army" and more extremist elements that it accuses of killing innocent Sunnis and embezzling . Some members of the more moderate faction were even willing to provide the US military with information on their rivals in an effort to purge the militia.

In addition to trying to rein in the force, Sadr is also believed to be honing plans to consolidate political gains and foster ties with Iran.

Sadr's associates say his strategy rests in part on his belief that Washington will soon start reducing troop strength, leaving behind a hole in Iraq's security and political power structure that he can fill. He also believes Maliki's government might soon collapse.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.