Muqtada al-Sadr, son of the late Shiah leader, Ayat Allah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, is known for fiery and radical statements against the US presence in Iraq.

But he told Reuters on Saturday: “We have always called for peaceful resistance.”

His comments came as stone-throwing Iraqi protesters clashed with British troops in the city of Basra. It was some of the most widespread violence seen in the Shiah majority south since Saddam Hussein was ousted in April.

Asked why attacks on US forces had been largely confined to Sunni majority areas in central Iraq, al-Sadr said Shiah religious leaders had not issued decrees ordering followers to take up arms as they saw no benefit in such action.

'Only Sunnis resisting violently'

Shiah Muslims must obey the decrees of their religious leader. “That's why resistance is only in non-Shiah areas,” al-Sadr said. “We (Shiah and Sunnis) have one single goal which is to remove the occupiers out of the country.

“But (Sunnis) have found the way to achieve that is by bloody resistance... We are for getting the occupiers out by peaceful means,” al-Sadr added.

Al-Sadr proposed demonstrations, protests, sit-ins and speeches as peaceful means of resistance. “That's what gets the occupiers out,” he said.

Islamic Army

Al-Sadr's influence is mainly attributed to his father, who was killed in 1999 along with two of his sons by suspected Iraqi intelligence agents.

The Shiah cleric said an Islamic army he called for last month was an army on paper, with no finance or weapons. Among its duties would be to protect religious schools and holy sites.

“About 50,000 people have joined the army so far,” he said.

Asked what the army would do if US forces tried to break into these schools during search operations, al-Sadr said its members would resist peacefully by sitting outside the school gates. He said it included men and women.

Al-Sadr reiterated his opposition to the US-backed governing council - a 25-member body roughly reflecting the country's ethnic and religious make-up - saying it was illegal.