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TEHRAN, Iran - The Iraqi cleric who once led two uprisings against U.S. forces said Sunday that his militia would help to defend Iran if it is attacked, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

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Muqtada al-Sadr, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting with the top Iranian nuclear negotiator, said his Mahdi Army was formed to defend Islam.

"If neighboring Islamic countries, including Iran, become the target of attacks, we will support them," al-Sadr was quoted as saying. "The Mahdi Army is beyond the Iraqi army. It was established to defend Islam."

The comments could be seen as a message that Tehran has allies who could make things difficult for U.S. forces in the region if Iran's nuclear facilities are attacked.

Al-Sadr has a large following among Iraq's young and impoverished Shiites. His militia launched two uprisings against U.S. troops in Iraq in 2004, but since the fighting ended he has transformed himself into a respected political figure. Al-Sadr's followers now hold 21 seats in the outgoing parliament as well as three Cabinet posts.

Al-Sadr's backing of Iran, a Shiite majority nation, follows a hint from Israel's defense minister that the Jewish state was preparing for military action to stop Iran's nuclear program. A few days earlier, French President Jacques Chirac said France could respond with nuclear weapons against any state-sponsored terror attack. The comments were seen by some as a reference to Iran.

"I don't see any threat against Iran," Iran's nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said after meeting with al-Sadr. "Iran is big and strong and it is a hard target."

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said earlier Sunday that Israel would be making a "fatal mistake" should it resort to military action. Iran has warned that Israel was living in a "glass house" and was well within Iran's missile range.

An upgraded version of Iran's Shahab-3 missile has a range of over 1,240 miles, putting Israel and U.S. forces in the Middle East in range.

Iran's resumption of its atomic research program earlier this month caused an international standoff over its nuclear ambitions.

Some Western nations fear Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop an atomic bomb. Iran insists it wants only peaceful nuclear energy.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060123/...ZhBHNlYwM3MjE-