NAJAF, Iraq — Thousands of Shi’ites, heeding a call from cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, stomped on American flags painted on roads outside mosques in a show of anger over the U.S. presence in Iraq, while Sunni leaders called yesterday for a closure of places of worship to protest the sectarian violence many fear may erupt into civil war.
An American soldier was killed in a roadside bombing north of Baghdad, the military said.
In an effort to curb the daily violence, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, during a visit to Turkey, said he will travel to Damascus to appeal in person for the government to take stronger steps to block insurgents from entering Iraq via Syria.
His decision follows U.S. military claims that top lieutenants of al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab Zarqawi met in Syria last month to plot suicide bombings in Iraq.
Tensions spiraled throughout Iraq, particularly in its southern Shi’ite heartland, as more than 10,000 protesters heeded the anti-U.S. cleric’s calls to step on and drive over American and Israeli flags painted on roads outside mosques. Many of the worshippers were chanting or waving the Koran, Islam’s holy book.
Sheik al-Sadr, a burly, black-bearded cleric, launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in Baghdad and Najaf in April and August last year, then went into hiding before surfacing Monday to demand that U.S.-led forces withdraw from Iraq.
His appeal came after U.S. and Iraqi forces detained 13 al-Sadr supporters during a raid this week on a Shi’ite mosque in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad.
Angry crowds attended services in the Shi’ite-dominated cities of Najaf, Kufa, and Nasiriyah, where a gunfight broke out between al-Sadr supporters and guards protecting a local provincial governor’s office.
Four police officers and four civilians were wounded, a hospital official said. Another nine al-Sadr supporters also were wounded, said Sheik al-Khafaji, an official at al-Sadr’s Nasiriyah office.
“We warn the government not to fight the al-Sadr movement because all the tyrants of the world could not beat it,” Hazim al-Araji, the imam of a Kufa mosque, said during yesterday’s sermon.
Another 5,000 al-Sadr supporters marched in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, the scene of fierce fighting last year between U.S. forces and fighters from the Shi’ite cleric’s Mahdi Army.
Sunni clerics, meanwhile, delivered fiery sermons in Baghdad and Ramadi, in western Iraq’s volatile Sunni Triangle, where 3,000 worshippers prayed under a baking sun and heeded a call from three of Iraq’s most influential Sunni organizations for places of worship to be shut for three days to protest purported Shi’ite violence against them.
In Baghdad’s Sunni Umm al-Qura mosque, cleric Sheik Ahmed al-Samaraei accused the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces of killing Sunni Muslims last week in the capital’s eastern Shaab suburb.
“Blood of Muslims is cheap for them,” Sheik al-Samaraei said. “I demand the government investigate what happened or the matters will worsen.”
Shi’ites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people and were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, but emerged from January elections with the biggest voting bloc in parliament.