A prominent anti-American Shiite cleric said Friday he hopes recent provincial elections will help unite Iraqis to push out the United States, as other religious leaders urged newly-elected officials to put the needs of the country over their personal interests.
The calls during Friday prayers came a day after final election results showed important gains for Shiite supporters of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who reaped rewards for his security crackdowns in Iraq's biggest cities last year.
The operations helped reduce the influence of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as government troops moved into areas once controlled by his Mahdi Army militia. But al-Sadr retains a core of followers, and his faction won some seats in every province in the south in the Jan. 31 elections.
"Iraq has turned a new page after the elections, which I hope will be a gate for liberation, a gate to serve the Iraqis and not keep occupiers to divide Iraqis," said al-Sadr in a message read by an aide during Friday prayers in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City.
"Goals are unified between politicians and the resistance to push out the occupiers," he said.
Washington has already set a timetable to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2011, but the pace could be accelerated if Iraqi forces are considered capable of taking greater control of security.
The provincial councils have no direct sway over national affairs, but carry wide powers over regional matters such as business deals and local security.
While U.S. opponents like al-Sadr benefited from the elections, so did Sunni tribal leaders who allied themselves with Washington and led an uprising against al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists.
The so-called Awakening Councils won eight of 29 provincial seats in Anbar - giving them a strong hand to form a governing coalition with smaller Sunni groups across a province that was once a major al Qaeda stronghold.
Sunnis boycotted the first round of provincial elections in 2005, and U.S. officials hope their gains in the recent voting will help reinforce Iraq's path toward improved security and stability.
Sunni and Shiite clerics in different parts of Iraq urged newly elected officials to focus on the needs of the people and not their political interests or personal ambitions.
"I want to tell those who won seats in the provincial elections that they are now shouldering great and big responsibilities," Sunni cleric Anas al-Issawi told followers at a mosque in Baghdad. "So, fear God and place the interests of your country ahead of your personal or party interests."
In the city of Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Sadrist cleric Sabah al-Obeidi called on officials who won to "forget their differences and direct all their efforts to serve the people."
"I call upon all the candidates who got seats on the provincial councils to do their best to solve the problems of the Iraqis rather than taking care of their personal ambitions."
Also Friday, the U.S. military said the Iraqi army discovered a large weapons cache hidden in a basement in the northern city of Mosul. The stash found on Feb. 14 contained hundreds of grenades and rounds of ammunition, dozens of rockets and mortars and 300 pounds of explosives, said the military statement.
By Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub; AP Writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report