New York Times
August 5, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Saturday, Aug. 5 — Tens of thousands of followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr rallied in support of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah on Friday, denouncing Israel and the United States for igniting violence throughout the Middle East.
The protest, the largest of several demonstrations in Iraq since the Israeli-Lebanese conflict began more than three weeks ago, filled 20 blocks of a wide, squalid boulevard and dozens of side streets in the Shiite-dominated Sadr City section of the capital.
All but a handful of the demonstrators were men, mostly young, wearing white cloth to symbolize funeral shrouds. Some carried guns. Waving Lebanese flags and posters of Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, they shook their fists and shouted in unison against what they described as the enemies of all Muslims.
“Hezbollah, beloved! Hit Tel Aviv! Hit Tel Aviv!” the protesters said. “No, no, no, Israel! No, no, no, America!” they chanted. And, finally, “If Americans are strong enough, they should come face us!”
The United States and Iraq’s new Shiite-led government have been at odds over the Israeli-Lebanese conflict since it started. Hezbollah, a Shiite group with ties to Iran, inspires widespread support here among Shiites. At the protest, barefoot boys in camouflage T-shirts scampered after men handing out posters of Sheik Nasrallah, grabbing at them as if they were candy.
Mr. Sadr’s organization claimed that a million people had attended; the United States military said it had counted 14,000.
In an effort to tap into Hezbollah’s widening ring of support, Mr. Sadr’s deputies sought repeatedly to conflate the Sadr-led uprising against Americans in Najaf two years ago with Hezbollah’s current fight against Israel.
“This month is the anniversary of the Mahdi victories in Najaf and other provinces,” Hazem al-Aaraji, Mr. Sadr’s deputy, said in a speech to the crowd, referring to the Mahdi Army, Mr. Sadr’s militia. “This month begins the sewing of a new robe of resistance in Lebanon.”
The peaceful, highly organized show of force by Mr. Sadr — who called for the rally earlier this week — started near a mosque after Friday Prayer, when Muslims typically gather in large numbers. It came at a time of growing tensions between the American military and his organization. On Thursday, American troops killed at least two occupants of a vehicle carrying armed Shiites to Baghdad for the rally.
American and Iraqi forces have also recently conducted a series of raids on bases of the Mahdi Army and have arrested high-ranking militia leaders.
Several members of Mr. Sadr’s bloc in Parliament said in interviews that the militia did not deserve to be blamed for the rising number of reprisal killings that have shaken Iraq in recent months.
“These are false accusations made against Sadr and the Mahdi organization,” Falah Hassan Shanshal, a member of Parliament who serves as Mr. Sadr’s spokesman, said at the rally. Moments later the deep thud of a bomb sounded in the distance.
“You see,” he said. “This is the violence. This is the terror. It’s all being done by Baathists and Takfiris,” Mr. Shanshal said, referring to extremist Sunni groups. “We are here struggling and challenging the terrorism unarmed, in clothes of peace.”
Unfazed by the blast, he turned away after a few seconds to greet his constituents.
An Interior Ministry official said later that the explosion had been a mortar round that struck the edge of Sadr City, near a mosque. No one was hurt, he said.
A few hours later, three people returning home from the rally were killed and four others were wounded when gunmen opened fire in the largely Sunni Dawra district of the city, the official said.
The United States military said that at least three suspected militants were killed in raids and an airstrike south of Baghdad on Thursday afternoon. Elsewhere in the country, fighting continued to rage. In Mosul, a series of car bombs aimed at Iraqi policemen killed a battalion commander and several other officers hours after Iraqi forces arrested 27 suspected insurgents, according to a statement from the Iraqi Army. Gun battles after the bombing between police officers and insurgents prompted officials to impose a curfew until 1 p.m. on Saturday, police officials said.
In Baquba, north of Baghdad, American troops wounded one person and arrested eight others in a series of raids, according to an official statement.
In Ubaydi, a town in Anbar Province on the Syrian border that American marines swept last year, three Iraqi civilians were killed and nine more were wounded when a mortar round hit a family’s home, a statement from the American military said.
Also in Anbar, two American soldiers from the First Armored Division died as a result of “enemy action” on Friday. Another American — a member of the First Marine Expeditionary Force — died early Saturday morning from nonhostile action in Anbar, bringing the total number of soldiers killed in August to at least nine, the military said.
Two days earlier, the top American Marine commander, Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, said violence in western Iraq was increasing.
“Right now, much like all of Iraq, the attack levels are up,” General Zilmer told The Associated Press.