Tens of thousands of Shiite youths draped in white shrouds gathered yesterday in Iraq's capital for a pro-Hezbollah rally as a car bomb killed three policemen in the northern city of Mosul and clashes between Iraqi security forces and Sunni insurgents left one policeman dead and eight people injured, also in Mosul, officials said.
Four Shiites were also shot dead overnight by unidentified gunmen near Baghdad.
The streets of the Shiite dominated Sadr City slum in Baghdad were packed with a multitude of youths for the rally, called by radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Organizers said about 250,000 people had gathered but the estimate was impossible to confirm.
Dressed in white shrouds -- a symbol of their willingness to die -- the youths waved Hezbollah's yellow flags and chanted "Death to Israel," "Death to America."
"I am wearing the shroud and I am ready to meet martyrdom," said Mohammed Khalaf, 35, owner of a clothes shop in the southern Amarah city.
"I consider my participation in this rally a religious duty. I am proud to join this crowd and I am ready to die for the sake of Lebanon," said Khazim al-Ibadi, 40, a government employee from Hillah.
Al-Sadr followers painted US and Israeli flags on the main road leading to the rally site, and demonstrated stepped on them with relish.
Alongside the painted flags was written: "These are the terrorists."
Although the rally was about Hezbollah, it is also a show of strength by al-Sadr, who commands a powerful militia, the Mahdi Army that US officials have blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian violence. It is not clear if al-Sadr, who lives in the southern holy city of Najaf, will attend.
Iraqi government television said the Defense Ministry had approved the demonstration, a sign of the public anger over Israel's offensive in Lebanon and of al-Sadr's stature as a major player in Iraqi politics.
Also, the presence of so many young Shiites -- most of them from the Mahdi Army -- adds to tensions in the city that has seen almost daily clashes between Shiite and Sunni extremists.
The sectarian violence escalated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed a wave of reprisal attacks on Sunnis nationwide.