BASRA, Iraq - Iraq's most prominent Shiite Muslim leader struck a careful balance Saturday as he returned from 23 years in exile, rallying supporters, who paid dearly under the ousted Iraqi regime, but trying to reassure other ethnic and religious groups.
Addressing a huge rally in Basra's main stadium, the head of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, told the faithful they needed to turn the page on the horrors of the past and forge a new Iraq.
"We now have to know our own way to rebuild Iraq, and forget the past," the 64-year-old Hakim said.
"We Muslims have to live together. We have to build security for our new society."
But despite the tens of thousands of supporters who had turned out to welcome him in the Shiites' southern stronghold on his arrival from Iran, the SAIRI leader avoided any note of triumphalism and sought to calm fears that his movement sought a Tehran-style theocracy.
"We want a democratic government, representing the Iraqi nation, the Iraqi people, the Muslims, Christians and all the minorities," he said.
Shiite Muslims make up around 60 percent of the Iraqi population, which also includes a complex mix of Kurds, Christians, Sunni Muslims and others. Some Iraqis fear the Shiites will eventually push for a state based on Islamic law.
Throughout his 45-minute address, Hakim presented himself as a spiritual leader - rather than a man to be compared with Iran's hardline revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But he clearly marked his distance from the British-US coalition occupying Iraq, speaking out against "imperialism" and demanding that Iraqis be left to forge their own destiny.
"We have to help each other stand together against imperialism," he said to cheers of "God is Greatest" from around the stadium.
"We are Muslims. We want the Iraqi people to govern themselves," he said, surrounded by bodyguards in civilian clothes from his group's military wing, the Badr Brigade.
"We want an independent government. We refuse imposed government.
"The Iraqi people do not need anyone to help them choose their government, and they are capable with the help of God of building this government."
Hakim's movement has repeatedly spoken out against the British-US occupation of Iraq but, despite its rhetoric, has taken the pragmatic decision to participate in US-sponsored efforts to forge a new administration.
Hakim's brother and deputy, Abdul Aziz, has been in the country since April 16 and has represented the movement at meetings of the former Iraqi opposition working toward setting up an interim government in Iraq.
In a separate interview accorded to the Arabic satellite television Al-Arabiya, Hakim implicitly criticised the coalition for failing to stem the lawlessness and looting that followed the collapse of Saddam's regime.
"The security question is the top priority," he said.
"We are in a position to restore security if the coalition forces allow us to take charge of this issue and do not interfere in our business," he said in an oblique swipe at Washington's refusal to allow his movement to bring in its fighters from Iran.