Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Shrine fears spark anti-US rallies in Lebanon

AP , BEIRUT, LEBANON

Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims, mostly supporters of the militant group Hezbollah, turned out in Beirut Friday in a massive show meant as a strong warning to the US against attacking holy sites in Iraq.

Wearing white shrouds symbolizing their readiness to die in defense of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq, the demonstrators, estimated at more than 200,000, shouted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" as they marched in Beirut's teeming southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold.

A protest march by about 5,000 Shiites in Bahrain led to clashes with police in which at least three people were injured by shotgun pellets and 10 treated for tear gas inhalation. Later Friday, the Bahraini king fired the interior minister over the clashes, saying the demonstration should have been allowed.

`Martyrdom'

Also Friday, a small demonstration was held outside the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran.

The Lebanon demonstration was in response to a call by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah earlier this week for "a symbolic demonstration to tell America that we are ready for martyrdom to defend our holy places."

Nasrallah accused US forces of desecrating holy shrines in Iraq, and called on Muslims to fight to the death to defend the sanctities in Najaf and Karbala.

US soldiers have been fighting militiamen of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf and Karbala during the past two weeks. During last weekend's fighting, the golden dome of the Iman Ali mosque in Najaf was lightly damaged, but it was not clear which side was responsible. The Imam Ali mosque is the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, who is revered by Shiites.

Addressing the crowd at the end of the march, Nasrallah renewed his call on the US to leave Najaf and Karbala.

"We will not abandon our religious duty. Today's march is a step on the road to defending the holy sites. Anything decided by our religious duty we will do without hesitation regardless of the sacrifices and calculations," he said.

"Let the Americans understand that those who wore shrouds today, including clerics, men, women, children and adults, did not come to show off," he said.

Ali Hassan, a 25-year-old Iraqi who joined the march, said: "I am ready to sacrifice my life for Imam Hussein. I am ready to join [al-Sadr's] Al Mahdi Army to fight against the Americans."

`Death to america'

A veiled Shiite woman, who introduced herself as Umm Mohammed, said: "Today's march is a message to America and the world that we are martyrdom lovers."

At a protest in Bahrain, police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of demonstrators, but the angry crowd broke through the police blockade and continued its march to protest the fighting in Karbala and Najaf, shouting: "Death to America!"

One group carried a banner reading: "Our shrines are our lives. Leave them alone!"

Most of the crowd was male, and many wore white shrouds.

After pushing past the security personnel, some protesters overturned a vacated police van and set it on fire.

The 3km march had been approved by security authorities but police tried to stop the demonstrators halfway through, saying the Ministry of Interior had not been informed of the march.

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