Hundreds of radical Shiite Muslims, some wielding assault rifles and rocket launchers, marched Friday in support of the Hezbollah movement and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in the capital’s Sadr City district, home to loyalists of Shiite fundamentalist cleric Muqtada Sadr.
“Here we are, ready for your orders, oh Muqtada and Nasrallah,” they chanted before Friday prayers, while holding up posters depicting both Shiite militia leaders as well as flags of Lebanon, where Israel is fighting Hezbollah militants. “Woe to you, Israel! We will strike you!”
Sadr has modeled himself on Nasrallah since emerging as a religious and political force in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, which persecuted his famous clerical family.
Sadr’s Al Mahdi army fought U.S. forces to several bloody standstills in the capital and Iraq’s south in 2004. The militia, which allegedly has infiltrated the official Iraqi security apparatus, continues to engage in near-daily clashes with British forces in Basra, in the south. Some followers of Sadr have won seats in the nation’s democratically elected parliament, just as Nasrallah’s followers have in Lebanon.
Sadr, speaking to worshipers at the Muslim bin Aqil mosque in the southern city of Kufa days after a devastating suicide bombing across the street killed dozens of laborers, demanded that the United Nations and Arab League stop “Israeli terrorism.”
“To the Lebanese people, the oppressed people are with you and against your enemy,” he said, recalling the Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attack that brought down the World Trade Center in New York City. “As the idol of U.S.A. fell, the idol of Israel will fall.”
Sheik Abdul Zahra Swaidi, a Sadr loyalist who spoke to worshipers Friday in Sadr City, taunted the international community and other Arab countries over their “dreadful silence” about Israel’s campaign in Lebanon, which he said “is being done with American blessing.”
“Disgrace will mark the Arab agent regimes,” he said, in apparent reference to pro-U.S. Arab governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have criticized both Hezbollah and Israel.
“Nations must say their word,” Swaidi said. “We have to support the Lebanese people in all manners available, moral and material.”
In the shrine city of Najaf, Friday prayer leader Sadruddin Qubanchi, allied with a more moderate Shiite faction, condemned Israel’s offensive in Lebanon as “a barbaric attack,” decrying it not just as an assault on Hezbollah but against “Lebanon and a threat to Syria and Iran, which makes it a war against the Islamic world.”
Though currently locked in a sectarian civil war, Iraqis across the political and religious spectrum have voiced support for Lebanon and condemned Israel.
This week, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, head of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government as well as leader of a fundamentalist Shiite political party, criticized “Israeli aggression” against Lebanon just days before his expected arrival in Washington on Tuesday.
The White House on Thursday brushed aside Maliki’s comment as evidence that Iraq was no U.S. puppet.
“That’s further proof that he’s got his own independent democracy,” spokesman Tony Snow told reporters in Washington.
Special correspondents in Baghdad and Najaf contributed to this report.