| GEO World|
| Sadr urges Iraqis to vote to help end U.S. occupation|
| Updated at: 1315 PST, Sunday, March 07, 2010|
TEHRAN: Anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, speaking at a rare news conference in Tehran, has urged Iraqis to take part in Sunday's election to help pave the way for Iraq's "liberation" from U.S. forces.
Sadr galvanized anti-U.S. sentiment following the 2003 invasion of Iraq but faded from the political scene since he vanished -- ostensibly to embrace religious studies in neighboring Iran -- more than two years ago.
Sadr's Mehdi Army, once a feared militia, has largely laid down its arms but his political movement is trying to make a comeback.
"Although holding elections under the shadow of occupation does not have legitimacy, I ask the Iraqi people to take part in the election as a political resistance move so that the ground is prepared for occupiers to leave Iraq," Sadr said on Saturday evening, a local news agency reported.
"I ask the Iraqi people to go to the polls to elect the best people who can prepare the ground for Iraq's liberation," he said.
Sadr's movement is a key player in a Shi'ite-led coalition taking part in the national vote, and is likely to be influential in Iraq's next parliament, if not in government.
It has wide support, mostly among the Shi'ite poor in the oil-producing south and deprived urban areas such as Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
Iraq's political course will be decisive for President Barack Obama's plans to halve U.S. troop levels over the next five months and withdraw entirely by end-2011.
No bloc is expected to win a majority, and it may take weeks or months to form a government.
The IRNA report did not say whether Sadr was now living in Iran or whether he was just visiting the predominantly Shi'ite Muslim country.
Having fought an eight-year war with Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, Tehran has taken an active interest in the rise of Shi'ite political dominance in Iraq. U.S. officials accuse Iran of arming Shi'ite militias. Iran says the blame for violence lies with the U.S. troops who invaded Iraq.