Iraqi Shiites chant 'Death to Israel'
By MURTADA FARAJ,
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Hundreds of thousands of Shiites chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" marched through the streets of Baghdad's biggest Shiite district Friday in a massive show of support for Hezbollah in its battle against Israel.
No violence was reported during the rally in Sadr City. But at least 26 people were killed elsewhere in the country, most of them in a car bombing and gunbattle in Mosul in the north.
The demonstration was the biggest in the Middle East in support of Hezbollah since Israel launched its attacks against the guerrillas in Lebanon on July 12. The protest was organized by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political movement built around the Mahdi Army militia has been modeled after Hezbollah.
Al-Sadr summoned followers from throughout the Shiite heartland of southern
Iraq to converge on Baghdad for the rally but he himself did not attend.
Demonstrators, wearing white shrouds symbolizing willingness to die for Hezbollah, waved the guerrillas' yellow banner and chanted slogans in support of their leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, which has attained a cult status in the Arab world for its defiance of Israeli military power.
"Allah, Allah, give victory to Hassan Nasrallah," the crowd chanted.
"Mahdi Army and Hezbollah are one, let them confront us if they dare," the predominantly male crowd shouted, waving the flags of Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iraq. Many walked with umbrellas in the searing afternoon sun. Volunteers sprayed them with water.
"I am wearing the shroud and I am ready to meet martyrdom," said Mohammed Khalaf, 35, owner of a clothes shop in the southern city of Amarah.
Al-Sadr followers painted U.S. and Israeli flags on the main road leading to the rally site, and demonstrators stepped on them — a gesture of contempt in Iraq. Alongside the painted flags was written: "These are the terrorists."
Protesters set fire to American and Israeli flags, as well as effigies of
President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, showing the men with Dracula teeth. "Saddam and Bush, Two Faces of One Coin" was scrawled on Bush's effigy.
Iraqi government television said the Defense Ministry had approved the demonstration, a sign of the public anger over Israel's offensive in Lebanon and of al-Sadr's stature as a major player in Iraqi politics.
"I consider my participation in this rally a religious duty. I am proud to join this crowd and I am ready to die for the sake of Lebanon," said Khazim al-Ibadi, 40, a government employee from Hillah.
Although the rally was about Hezbollah, it was also a show of strength by al-Sadr, and many worried that the presence of so many Shiite demonstrators — most of them from the Mahdi Army — would add to tensions in the city that has seen almost daily clashes between Shiite and Sunni extremists.
The sectarian violence escalated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed a wave of reprisal attacks on Sunnis nationwide.
In the latest violence Friday, at least 13 people were killed when Iraqi security forces fought street gunbattles with suspected insurgents in Mosul after a suicide car bomber blew up a police patrol, provincial police commander Maj. Gen. Withiq al-Hamdani said.
He said the suicide bombing killed four policemen and eight insurgents were killed in the subsequent gunbattle.
Also Friday, another suicide bomber killed three people on a soccer field in Hatra town near Mosul. An engineer was shot dead and an unidentified body, showing signs of torture, was found in western Baghdad.
The U.S. military said in a statement that coalition forces killed at least three "terrorists" during an air strike and multiple raids southeast of Baghdad on Thursday.
Separately. gunmen shot and killed four people and wounded eight from a Shiite family late Thursday in Dujail, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Baghdad, police Lt. Hussam al-Dujeili, said.
On Thursday, Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in Washington that sectarian violence in Iraq "is probably as bad as I have seen it" and that if the spiral continued the country "could move toward civil war."