Iraq's anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has urged his followers to halt attacks on U.S. troops to ensure they leave Iraq by an end-of-year deadline.
In a statement issued late Saturday, al-Sadr warned that if U.S. forces remain in Iraq beyond the deadline, his movement will resume military operations against them with greater intensity.
The U.S. military says about 45,000 troops remain in Iraq. However, Iraq's government is negotiating a possible extension of their mission to help train Iraqi forces beyond 2011.
U.S. military spokesman Col. Barry Johnson responded to al-Sadr's statement by saying all groups in Iraq should abide by the laws and agreements of their nation and face consequences when breaking those laws.
Sadr's Mahdi Army militia fought U.S. troops in Iraq until 2008, when he disbanded the force and focused his movement on Iraq's political process. His bloc is a key faction in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government. But, some groups that splintered from the Mahdi Army have continued to attack U.S. forces and the Iraqi government.
Johnson said the U.S. military will soon see if militias affiliated with al-Sadr's movement continue such attacks, or if Sadr's comments "are just words without deeds to back them up."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining internal security, but need training in using heavy weaponry to defend the country's borders, airspace and territorial waters.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.