BAGHDAD, April 8 -- Two militant Muslim clerics, one Sunni and one Shiite, have called for demonstrations here Saturday to protest the continuing U.S. military occupation of Iraq two years after the toppling of President Saddam Hussein.
If the protests materialize, they will be the first large-scale rallies to occur under Iraq's new government, whose most senior leaders -- President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari -- were formally installed this week. Jafari is now forming his cabinet.
Iraqis in Sadr City wave pictures of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who urged his followers to rally today, the 2nd anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
(Karim Kadim -- AP)
Moqtada Sadr, a young militant Shiite cleric with a large following in Baghdad's huge Sadr City slum, has urged a peaceful march from Firdaus Square, where U.S. troops tore down a statue of Hussein to mark the capture of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, to the heavily fortified Green Zone. A Sadr spokesman said protesters would demand a withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops, the release of detainees in U.S. military prisons and Hussein's prosecution.
Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, twice engaged U.S. forces in weeks of street fighting last year until a truce was negotiated in August.
During communal prayers at Baghdad's Um al-Qura mosque on Friday, a Sunni cleric, Harith Dhari, chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, urged Sunnis to come out in protest against the U.S. military presence.
Dhari maintains that the new Iraqi government is illegitimate because it was elected under military occupation, and he is widely seen as sympathetic to the predominantly Sunni insurgency that targets U.S. forces and Iraqis who work with them.
"Tomorrow will be the second black anniversary of the Iraq occupation," he said during the sermon. "We have seen nothing but bloodshed, destruction, pillage and thievery before the very eyes of the Iraqi people, who are looking on as their sons are butchered, detained, and the state funds looted and taken outside the country by the thieves who have taken over."
He added: "I call on the Iraqi people to wake up from their sleep and to say with one united voice, 'No to occupation!' and to go out tomorrow in demonstrations in all parts of the country -- in Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Dahuk and everywhere."
There are indications that the Sunni and Shiite anti-occupation forces are collaborating. In Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, spokesmen for Sadr and the Association of Muslim Scholars said in interviews Friday that they supported each other's calls for a U.S. withdrawal.
Asked about preparations for the protests, an Interior Ministry spokesman, Sabah Kadhim, said the police "are taking all necessary precautions to ensure that the demonstrations will be peaceful, and we hope they will be."
Kadhim added that peaceful demonstrations are "part of their democratic right."
Meanwhile, in his first interview since being sworn in as president Thursday, Talabani told the Reuters news agency that the newly elected National Assembly would complete the writing of a permanent constitution by mid-August, the deadline set by the interim constitution now in force. "Drafting the constitution will be done on time," Talabani said.
U.S. military officials said a soldier was killed by a bomb in Kirkuk province Friday. And in Tarmiya, a town about 20 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. forces on Thursday detained a three-man bombing team with video footage showing "alleged terrorists manufacturing [a bomb] and scouting locations to attack U.S. convoys," a U.S. military news release said.
The Associated Press reported that four children were killed Friday in Baghdad when they came across a bomb while digging through garbage for metal scraps. The news agency also said three masked gunmen killed an Iraqi army officer, Maj. Mahmoud Hassan Yassiri, late Thursday in the southern city of Basra.
And in Najaf, a bomb exploded near a bus station, injuring four civilians.
Special correspondents Khalid Saffar in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.