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Iraqi Shi'ite protesters march on US HQ
( 2003-10-09 11:14) (Agencies)

More than 6,000 Shi'ite Muslims marched to the headquarters of the U.S.-led administration in Iraq on Wednesday in a second day of protests demanding the release of a cleric arrested by American troops.

A Shi'ite Muslim protester waves an Iraqi flag October 8, 2003 after thousands marched to the Baghdad headquarters of the U.S. led administration in Iraq. More than 2,000 Shi'ite Muslims marched to the headquarters of the U.S.-led administration in a second day of protests demanding the release of a cleric arrested by American troops.  [Reuters]
As U.S. tanks approached, protesters lay down in the road outside a palace complex in central Baghdad that formerly housed Saddam Hussein's top officials and has now been taken over by Iraq's occupiers. They shouted slogans and refused to move.

The protesters had marched from a mosque in southern Baghdad where they massed on Tuesday following the detention of Sheikh Muayad Khazraji, a Shi'ite cleric.

Officials in the U.S.-led administration held talks with protest representatives on defusing the situation but there was no breakthrough. Clerics running the demonstrations dismissed assertions by U.S. officials that they could not release the Shi'ite leader because he was in the hands of Iraqi authorities.

"If he is not released, we will widen our protests," said cleric Hazim al-Araji.

Local leaders said the U.S. military had told them the cleric was accused of storing arms and calling on Iraqis to oppose the U.S.-led occupation. The U.S. military has not commented on this.

U.S. Brigadier General Martin Dempsey of the 1st Armored Division said Khazraji was arrested for "criminal and anti-coalition activities."

But the cleric's followers say he is innocent.

Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the population, are pushing for a leading role in governing postwar Iraq after suffering persecution under Saddam's Sunni-dominated government.

Shi'ite clerics said the protests would remain peaceful but protesters warned of dire consequences if Khazraji was not freed.

"Today is peaceful but tomorrow will be war," blared a warning from a loudspeaker.

Angry demonstrators burned leaflets handed out by U.S. soldiers warning that violence would not be tolerated.

Clerics struggled to hold back angry youths who surged toward U.S. troops guarding the palace complex.

After the talks ended, protesters threw their shoes and plastic bottles at American soldiers and spat at them over barbed wire as a man on a louspeaker whipped up the crowd.

"If Sheikh Muayad is not released we will be back and the Americans will not believe what we will do to them," yelled an Iraqi teenager as nervous U.S. troops held up their rifles and helicopters swooped low.

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