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Cleric urges Iraqis to reject US presence

Baghdad, April 25 (Reuters): A senior Sunni cleric urged Iraqis today to reject the US presence in their country and likened it to the “tyranny” of Saddam Hussein.

Sheikh Moayyad Ibrahim al-Aadhami also told scores of worshippers at the Abi Hanifah Nouman mosque in Baghdad that Sunnis and Shias should shun sectarian divisions and live in harmony.

Although Sheikh al-Aadhami’s sermon was milder than the fiery, anti-US rhetoric of some previous homilies, his words reflected the anger many Iraqis feel at what they regard as the US occupation of their country.

“Let’s say no to America, no to the occupation. We won’t replace one tyrant with another,” Sheikh al-Aadhami said in a sermon marking Friday prayers.

“We want a people that enjoys security. We want a Muslim people that has equal rights and duties, that groups Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities. We want a people not split by sectarianism, with Sunnis and Shias standing hand in hand.”

Shias make up 60 per cent of Iraq’s population of about 26 million people but were repressed under Saddam, a Sunni, before he was toppled by the US-led forces which invaded Iraq on March 20.

Some Sunnis fear the Shias will try to concentrate power in their own hands and dominate post-war Iraq. Thousands of Iraqis — Sunnis and Shias alike — have staged anti-US protests since the US-led invasion, expressing the hope that the Americans will not force their will on the country.

A Reuters reporter said there was no sign of any major protests after the sermon but anti-American sentiment was still running high among many Iraqis at the Abi Hanifah mosque.

“We don’t want America. We don’t want its agents. Those were dogs barking from outside the border,” said Abdel Jabar Khalaf, referring to the members of US-backed Iraqi opposition groups who are now seeking a role in government.

“We all want to choose our own leaders democratically and through elections,” said Khalid Jamil, another worshipper.

Outside the mosque, which was bombed during the war, residents of the capital’s Aadhamiya area had strung up banners reading: “Pull out tanks, don’t provoke the people.”

Many Iraqis are bitter at the US for failing to prevent the anarchy and looting that followed the bombing of Baghdad, where armed gangs still roam free and essential services remain patchy.

Jay Garner, the American retired general overseeing the reconstruction of Iraq, visited the capital this week and promised Iraqis a “government by Iraqis”, but he did not say how long it would take to form a new Iraqi administration. Like many Iraqis, Baghdadi Sabe’i Abdel Rahim was sceptical of the US promises.

He also gave the Americans a stern warning of what to expect if they overstayed their welcome. “The people of Baghdad did not fight. We can rule ourselves. We don’t need the United States. If America stays here too long it will see how the real Iraqi people fight,” he said.

Baghdad’s self-declared mayor said today he wanted to cooperate with the US-led team rebuilding Iraq.

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