|A woman holds a picture of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as his supporters rally in Baghdad's Sadr city. [REUTERS]
Thousands of supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have ralled in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in a show of force against any extension of US military presence in the country past a year-end deadline.
Al Jazeera's Omar Al Saleh, reporting from Baghdad, on Thursday said members of al-Sadr's Mahdi army "converged at Sadr City" , the northeastern Baghdad neighbourhood named after the cleric's father, "at early hours of the morning".
According to our correspondent, the cleric's loyalists staged a peaceful protest, marching without carrying weapons, but this was no cause for relief.
"They have a message aimed at Americans: if you stay beyond the deadline set by the SOFA agreement, the security agreement signed between the US and Iraq - if they stay beyond that date which is 31 of December, the end of this year, the Mahdi army will resume its military activities and they wiill battle US forces," Al Saleh said.
'Sign for worry'
Al Saleh said some protesters who spoke off camera said they have their weapons at home and that they were ready "at any moment that the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gives his orders", to pick up arms and "fight the Americans".
"... this is a sign for worry to the Iraqi government and to the US military," Saleh said. "We actually received a statement of a senior US military general here in Iraq [saying that] it's no comfort that an illegal militia threatens to reactivate its forces and start bloodshed and fighting."
Al-Sadr, said to be in his 30s, gained wide popularity among Shias in Iraq in the months after the US-led invasion of 2003, when his Mahdi Army fighters battled US troops.
Some 45,000 American troops remain in Iraq, primarily tasked with training and equipping their Iraqi counterparts, although they must all withdraw by the end of the year under the terms of a bilateral security pact.
In early January, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for a national dialogue to gauge whether US troops should stay beyond 2011, and US defence secretary Robert Gates said he hopes Iraqi leaders will ask them to stay beyond the deadline.
Acknowledging that US troops remain unpopular in Iraq, eight years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, Gates said: "All I can say is that from the standpoint of Iraq's future but also our role in the region, I hope they figure out a way to ask."
US officials have criticised Sadr's threat to reactivate the Mahdi Army, with Major-General Jeffrey Buchanan saying: "The attempt to influence a debate by coercion, such as the threat to reactivate the Mahdi army is an affront to Iraq's democracy."
"Regardless of one's political beliefs, nobody finds comfort in an open threat to bring back an illegal militia," added Buchanan, spokesman for US forces in Iraq.