Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, back in Iraq after four years of Iran-based exile, urged his followers on Thursday to remain calm after they gave him a rowdy welcome in his home city of Najaf.

Hundreds of people turned out to greet the radical cleric when he arrived on Wednesday in the central Iraq city, but they apparently became too exuberant when Sadr later visited the shrine of Imam Ali and caused a stampede.

"I did not know you like that. Your indiscipline while I was performing my religious rituals bothered me and hurt me. I beg you to be disciplined, and not to shout excessive slogans," Sadr said in a statement.

"The stampede hurt me, and hurt others, and this will tarnish the image of our movement in the eyes of others," he added.Sadr, who according to a source in his movement left Iraq at the end of 2006, has so far remained mum about the reasons for his return from self-imposed exile.

That may change on Saturday morning when, according to Sadr movement spokesman Salah al-Obaidi, the cleric is set to give a speech "to the Iraqi people."The son of revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr who was killed in 1999, Sadr had reportedly been pursuing religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

The cleric, who is said to be in his 30s, gained wide popularity among Shiites in Iraq in the months after the US-led invasion of 2003, and his Mahdi Army later battled American troops in several bloody conflicts.

Sadr was identified by the Pentagon in 2006 as the greatest threat to stability in Iraq.His militia became the most active and feared armed Shiite group, and was blamed by Washington for the death-squad killings of thousands of Sunni Muslims.

But in August 2008, Sadr suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, in the wake of major US and Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq in the spring.

Following the ceasefire, US military commanders said Sadr's action had been instrumental in helping bring about a significant decrease in the levels of violence across Iraq.Two residents of Sadr City, a sprawling area of Baghdad that is named after the cleric's father and is one of his strongholds, said on Thursday they thought increased stability would follow Sadr's return.

"I'm very happy today for his return," said Amr Zayed, 38.

"I think the situation will be stable after that, and will be much better than before, because even the Sadrist group will calm down and will not dare to participate in any violence."Ahmed Rahim, 25, said: "His return is a victory for just people. It's a great pleasure for us, especially because his movement is to participate in the government.

"That means there that no security problems will happen -- no battles or confrontation with the government, as happened before," he added.Sadr City was the scene of heavy fighting in 2008 between US and Iraqi forces on one side and Shiite fighters, mainly from the Mahdi Army, on the other.




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