BAGHDAD Radical Shi'ite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr launched one of his strongest broadsides against the United States on Friday, saying the invasion of Iraq had burdened the country with violence and poverty.
Sadr, whom the U.S. military says is believed to be in Iran, urged Iraqis to protest in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf on April 9, the fourth anniversary of when American troops swept into central Baghdad in 2003.
"Iraq has endured difficult years because of this oppressive occupation that claims it removed the destroyer (Saddam Hussein) to bring the ghost of a fake democracy," Sadr said in a statement.
"It came to ... disarm banned weapons only to replace them with uglier weapons -- terrorism. Terrorism breeds terrorism," Sadr said, without elaborating.
"Years have passed and instead of having (President George W.) Bush's pictures in Iraqi houses, they are being stepped on, along with their (American) flags, with the feet of Iraqis."
Saddam persecuted Iraq's Shi'ite majority for decades. Sadr's father was killed under Saddam's regime.
Sadr's aides insist he is in Iraq and have denied suggestions the firebrand fled to Iran to escape a new U.S.- backed security crackdown that began in Baghdad in mid-February.
Despite his criticism of the United States -- Sadr renewed his demand for U.S. troops to leave Iraq -- his Mehdi Army militia has kept a low profile during the Baghdad offensive. Washington calls the militia the greatest threat to peace in Iraq.
Since leading two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, Sadr has become an important political player. He is a key backer of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Sadr said that four years after the invasion, Iraq "is still without water, has no electricity, no fuel and no safety".
"Raise your Iraqi flags on your houses and buildings and government buildings to show or indicate the independence of Iraq. Reject the presence of American flags and others from the occupying countries in our beloved Iraq until they leave," he said.
U.S. forces have detained or killed several hundred of the Mehdi militia in recent months. Key Sadr aides have also been detained.
The Baghdad offensive is seen as a final attempt to halt Iraq's spiral into all-out sectarian civil war.