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Shi'ite Cleric's Supporters Protest U.S. Presence In Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Thousands of Shi'a demonstrated against the U.S. presence in Iraq, heeding orders from anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for a peaceful show of force on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Crowds of people waved photos of the reclusive cleric, dancing and shouting, following Friday Prayers in Al-Sadr City, a Shi'ite stronghold in northeastern Baghdad.

Several men burned a red, white, and blue flag as they pledged support for the reclusive al-Sadr.

"We all support you, Sayyid Muqtada! We are your soldiers!" they shouted, addressing al-Sadr by a title of respect.

In the southern holy city of Al-Najaf, several hundred protesters turned out for a parallel protest. "No, no to occupation!" read one banner.

Late last month, al-Sadr extended indefinitely a cease-fire for the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the feared militia that until a government crackdown earlier this year controlled Al-Sadr City and swathes of southern Iraq.

The cleric, who is believed to be holed up in the Iranian city of Qom, has asked the bulk of his followers to dedicate themselves to helping poor Shi'a and countering Western influence in Iraq. He also ordered Friday's protests.

The question as violence drops sharply across Iraq is whether the bulk of al-Sadr's militia will obey orders to put down their arms.

In Al-Sadr City, Imam Muhannad al-Mussawi addressed the thousands of men and boys gathered for prayers under the blistering summer sun.

"Everybody knows that the goals of American wars are commercial. They use war to drain desperate nations economically and socially," he told the crowd.

The protests came as attention focused on the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, and the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought assurances from Washington about gradually reducing its military activities in the country.

Pentagon sources said this week they were recommending the withdrawal of one combat brigade, 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers, in early 2009, a move that reflects both improving conditions in Iraq and growing needs in Afghanistan.