Bloodshed at Baghdad protest marches

Gunmen fired on supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, killing one person and wounding two others as they made their way to protests planned for the second anniversary of Baghdad’s fall to US-led troops.

Gunmen fired on supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, killing one person and wounding two others as they made their way to protests planned for the second anniversary of Baghdad’s fall to US-led troops.

In the poor New Baghdad neighbourhood, meanwhile, four children were killed yesterday when they came across explosives while digging through garbage for metal scraps, witnesses and police said. It was unclear what caused the blast.

“It’s really ironic,” said Qais Mousa, who saw the explosion. “We are living in a rich country, while these poor innocents are dying in this horrible way.”

After dark, al-Sadr supporters marched and chanted through the city, hanging anti-US banners on columns surrounding Firdos Square, where a jubilant crowd pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9 2003, as US troops spread through the capital.

Al-Sadr had urged his supporters to gather today at the square and a group was at the landmark along with police after yesterday’s 11pm curfew. US and Iraqi officials said they were preparing for today’s demonstration.

The cleric had kept out of the limelight since his Mahdi Army militiamen accepted truces last year after failed uprisings in the southern city of Najaf and Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood. But he has stepped up criticism of the US in recent weeks, mostly by organising today’s protest.

Sunni Muslim clerics also called demonstrations for today to demand that American and other foreign troops leave Iraq.

Sheikh Hassan al-Edhari, an official at al-Sadr’s Baghdad office, said al-Sadr’s mainly Shiite followers wanted the new Iraqi government to set a schedule for pulling out foreign troops and for putting Saddam on trial.

During his Friday morning sermon in the capital, the head of an influential Sunni group accused coalition forces of “killing the Iraqi people daily”.

“We demand that the occupation troops withdraw from Iraq. We don’t want them to do it immediately, but we want them to set a timetable for their withdrawal,” said Sheikh Harith al-Dahri, whose Association of Muslim Scholars is believed to have ties to Iraq’s militants.

But at another Sunni mosque in Baghdad, Sheikh Ahmad Hasan al-Taha instructed worshippers to refrain from marking the April 9 anniversary. Al-Taha also called for the release of arrested religious figures, claiming there were more than 90 imams in detention.

US military officials said they had nothing planned to mark the anniversary, and refused to comment on security measures. But additional Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees were seen in areas where demonstrations were expected.

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