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Thousands march to support radical Iraqi cleric

Thousands of supporters of Iraq’s defiant Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, marched through  Baghdad Saturday, in a show of strength punctuated by anti-occupation rhetoric.
/ Source: Reuters

Thousands of supporters of Iraq’s defiant Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, marched through the streets of Baghdad on Saturday, in a show of strength punctuated by anti-occupation rhetoric.

Members of Sadr’s militia, known as the Mehdi army, paraded through Sadr city, his power base in the northeast of the Iraqi capital.

Some of them wore black masks, and many carried banners and pictures of the cleric and of his father who was assassinated in 1999. An American and an Israeli flag were set on fire.

“This parade of the Mehdi army was ordered by his eminency the general commander of the army, Sayyid Moqtada Sadr,” said Sadiq al-Hashimi, a cleric who was leading a group of marchers.

“We are here to show the world our might, this army can be a striking force at any moment, it’s a time bomb that will go off at a time and place it chooses.”

Sadr, a young and radical Shiite cleric, has often spoken out against the U.S. occupation and against the Iraqi Governing Council which Washington hand-picked, in contrast to many other Shiite groups that have sought to work with occupying forces.

He has wide influence, especially among poor urban Shiites in and around Baghdad, and formed his “Jaysh al-Mehdi” militia last year.

The U.S.-led authorities in Iraq closed down a newspaper acting as his mouthpiece last Sunday, accusing al-Hawza of inciting violence. His supporters have mounted several major protests since.

Saturday’s marchers also complained about the arrest of a senior Sadr aide who they said had been detained by U.S. forces.

“This is a message to the council of oppression and the U.S. who tried to tell the people we have no influence,” Said Murtada Kinani, a construction worker who joined the parade, said.

“Saddam could not stop us, do they think they can stop us?”