In Baghdad, Shiites Rally for Hezbollah (da Washington Post e ABCnewsonline)


Washington Post Foreign Service, Saturday, August 5, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 4 -- Thousands of Shiite Muslims marched though the Iraqi capital on Friday in support of Hezbollah guerrillas battling Israeli forces in Lebanon, answering a call by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to rally to the cause of their fellow Shiites.

Throngs of Shiite men, most clad in white burial shrouds that symbolized their willingness to die, gathered in the northeast Baghdad slum known as Sadr City. Then they marched toward the center of the capital, chanting: "We will step over America. We are Hezbollah" and "How can we sleep tonight? We have a quarrel with Israel."

Other demonstrators waved the yellow flag of Hezbollah, the red-and-green flag of Lebanon and numerous banners, including one that read: "Death to America and Israel, the enemies of humanity." Occasionally, knots of protesters stopped to desecrate the flag of Israel.

Friday's demonstration was the latest sign that the fighting in Lebanon is sparking outrage across the Middle East, especially among the region's Shiites. The large turnout, along with the absence of any reported violence, also suggested that Sadr's ability to rally legions of disciplined followers remains strong at a time when factional militias dominate Baghdad.

"Today, we proved that there is no violence among our ranks and the Iraqis are fully in support of the Lebanese people," said Sahib al-Amiry, who heads a branch of Sadr's organization called the God's Martyr Foundation.

Estimates of the crowd by organizers ranged from 250,000 to 1 million, which would make it the biggest protest in the Middle East in support of Hezbollah since Israel launched attacks last month after the Shiite insurgency group seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. But the U.S. military said in a news release that calculations based on pictures taken from unmanned surveillance aircraft put the crowd at 14,000.

The convergence of so many Sadr supporters, including members of the cleric's personal militia known as the Mahdi Army, had raised concern that the march would provoke bloodshed. But the Iraqi Defense Ministry allowed it to take place, and the event was overwhelmingly peaceful. Many supporters traveled up from Shiite-dominated areas in southern Iraq.

Sadr issued a call for Friday's demonstration early in the week and has repeatedly denounced Israel's military assault in Lebanon. Both Sadr and Hezbollah share ties to Iran, and Sadr is believed to be modeling his movement after Hezbollah.

Shiite leaders in Iraq's government have also expressed solidarity with Hezbollah. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ruling coalition of Shiite parties includes several loyal to Sadr, has called for a cease-fire in Lebanon and has criticized Israel -- a stance at odds with that of the Iraqi government's backers in Washington.

Sadr's Mahdi Army staged two armed uprisings against U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2004 and has been widely accused of involvement in the sectarian killings that claim scores of lives every day in Iraq. Tensions persist between U.S. forces and Sadr's militia.

On Thursday, a van full of Sadr supporters on their way to the demonstration in Baghdad exchanged fire with U.S. and Iraqi forces at a checkpoint near Mahmudiyah, U.S. and Iraqi sources said.

A statement issued by the U.S. military in Baghdad said that occupants of the van fired on U.S. Army soldiers in a security tower and that the soldiers returned fire, killing two Iraqis. Al-Amiry, of the Sadr-allied God's Martyr Foundation, accused the Americans of firing first.

Maliki has vowed that his government will dismantle the militias, but many of the country's factional forces seem as potent as ever, including the one associated with Maliki's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

While the level of violence in Baghdad was far lower than in recent days, bombings and gunfights Friday claimed more than a dozen lives in and around the northern city of Kirkuk.

In Mosul, police battled insurgents in the streets of the city, 220 miles north of Baghdad, from early morning until afternoon, according to Wathiq al-Hamdani, the Mosul police commander. Two car bombs, he added, killed four police officers and wounded eight.

About 35 miles south of Mosul in the town of Hatra, a suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives into a crowd of spectators during a soccer match between police and a local team, according to the Ninevah province police.

The bomb killed 10 people, including seven police officers, and wounded 12.

And in western Iraq, two American soldiers assigned to the 1st Armored Division's 1st Brigade were killed in combat Friday, according to a U.S. military statement that provided no additional details.

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.


ABC Newsonline 5 agosto 2006

Iraq Shiites hold huge pro-Hezbollah rally

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites have gathered in Baghdad chanting "death to Israel!" and "resistance!" in a massive demonstration of support for Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

The march, organised by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is the largest foreign show of support for the Lebanese Shiite guerrillas in the three weeks since Israel launched a devastating ground and air offensive against them.

The size and fervour of the rally has stoked political tensions in Baghdad, where Moqtada al-Sadr's "Mehdi Army" has tense relations with the city's Sunni minority, US-led coalition forces and Iraq's fragile Government of national unity.

Large numbers of black-clad armed fighters from the Mehdi Army escorted demonstrators, and the day passed peacefully until a convoy carrying protesters home was attacked by gunmen as it drove through a Sunni district.

Three protesters were killed and six injured in the ambush, an Interior Ministry official said, confirming reports from protest organisers.

While Mehdi Army officials insisted a million people had attended the demonstration, US military spokesman Major Steven Stover said images taken by drone aircraft showed only 14,000.

There was no official government estimate, but reporters at the scene said hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets.

The Shiite demonstrators wore white shrouds to demonstrate their willingness to accept martyrdom.

Hundreds of Hezbollah flags

They marched over US and Israeli flags and waved hundreds of yellow Hezbollah flags in support of the militia's war against Israel.

Portraits of Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Shiite group's leader, were carried aloft through a massive crowd, which packed a kilometre-long street in the teeming Sadr City district of the Iraqi capital.

"This million-man demonstration is to support the resistance in Lebanon," cleric Hazem al-Aariji told worshippers at Friday prayers before the march.

"For 22 days the Israelis could not invade Lebanon ... Hezbollah has terrified the Israelis because they do not fear death," he said.

The rally lasted for an hour before participants dispersed peacefully.

Police reported that a Katyusha rocket was fired at the neighbourhood but did not land near the march and caused no casualties.

Security around Sadr City was intensive, with police and army units on the outskirts and Sadr's militiamen searching bystanders and demonstrators.

"We will win by God's help, the Mehdi Army and Hezbollah," the protesters chanted.

"We are soldiers, ready for Nasrallah's call."

Anger at Israel

The Israeli bombardment of Lebanon has angered both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, and preachers across the country tackled the topic in their Friday sermons, condemning Arab governments for their meagre response to the campaign.

The demonstration, feeding on the anger of many Iraqis at the actions of Israel, came as coalition commanders in Iraq have been urging the Iraqi Government to move against militias.

General John Abizaid, the top US commander for the Middle East, says neighbouring Iran is arming Iraqi death squads, militias have infiltrated the police and more US troops are needed to bring Baghdad under control.

But a senior coalition official cautioned against treating the Mehdi Army as a monolithic entity, as it is a loosely organised body with just parts of it actively engaged in violent and illegal activities.

"We have to be careful that we don't demonise Jaish al-Mehdi, because look at the polls -- Moqtada Sadr himself is an enormously popular figure," he said.

"Why? Because he is thumbing his nose at the coalition."

Bomb attacks

Baghdad has been battered by a wave of bomb attacks on police patrols and crowded civilian areas, while gunmen from rival Shiite and Sunni factions carry out nightly killings and lob mortar shells across the city.

Last week the Pentagon increased the number of US soldiers in Iraq to around 130,000 by extending the tours of about 3,700 combat troops by an extra 120 days to help quell the sectarian violence in Baghdad.

Elsewhere around Iraq at least 33 people have died, mostly in the northern province of Nineveh where insurgent bombers and gunmen killed 19 people, mostly police officers.

The police commander for the province says the situation is under control and numerous "al-Qaeda" insurgents have been killed.

South of Mosul, a suicide car bomber drove his booby-trapped vehicle into a soccer match, killing three policemen and seven civilians.

A member of one of the former regime's security services was shot dead in the southern city of Amara and a bystander was killed just south of the capital by a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol.




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