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Iraqis March Against Israel; Cleric Wants Revenge

Muqtada al-Sadr
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of Iraqis protested against Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip and powerful Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for revenge attacks on the Jewish state's strongest ally, the United States.

Protesters waved Palestinian flags and burned Israeli and U.S. flags in the Baghdad Shi'ite slum of Al-Sadr City after Friday Prayers.

Smaller protests were held and anti-Israeli sermons delivered in the Sunni Al-Adhamiyah district, the Sunni city of Al-Fallujah, and the holy Shi'ite city of Al-Najaf.

"Death to Israel, death to America, Israel's partner in attacking Gaza," the Al-Sadr City crowd chanted, after a message from al-Sadr was read to them, calling for solidarity with Gaza.

Israel pushed ahead with its offensive in the Gaza Strip on January 9, ignoring a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Israel says it wants to stop rockets fired into its territory by Hamas militants who control Gaza. Medical officials said the Palestinian death toll had risen to at least 783, more than one-third children. Ten Israeli soldiers have been killed and Palestinian rockets have killed three Israeli civilians.

"I call on the noble uprising to carry out revenge operations against the biggest partner of the Zionist enemy, to be hand in hand with the noble Palestinian uprising," al-Sadr said in a speech read by his representatives at Friday Prayers.

The United States has traditionally been Israel's strongest supporter, and has backed the Gaza offensive.

Al-Sadr has huge popular support in Iraq and commands the powerful Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which has fought fierce battles with U.S. forces since they invaded Iraq in 2003 but has largely been disbanded over the past year.

There are some 140,000 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq.

Last month, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned what he called the "savage" Israeli operation. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani have also condemned it.

Iraq hosted some 30,000 Palestinian refugees before the U.S.-led invasion. Many of them found themselves victim of attacks of threats once the war began, partly because they were seen as clients of the deposed leader Saddam Hussein.