Shiite Muslims demonstrate across Middle East against U.S. figh

Saturday, May 22, 2004

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims demonstrated in Beirut Friday to warn the United States against attacking holy sites in Iraq. Smaller groups rallied in three other Mideast nations, with protesters in Bahrain clashing with police.

Wearing white shrouds symbolizing their readiness to die in defense of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, more than 200,000 protesters marched through Beirut's suburbs. Many chanted "death to America, death to Israel."

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah accused U.S. forces of desecrating holy shrines in Iraq, and called on Muslims to fight to the death for the two Iraqi cities. Hezbollah fought an 18-year guerrilla war that led to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

"Let the Americans understand that those who wore shrouds today, including clerics, men, women, children and adults, did not come to show off," Nasrallah said. "We will not abandon our religious duty. Today's march is a step on the road to defending the holy sites."

Shiite Muslim communities in Lebanon, Iran and Bahrain have been outraged by continued fighting in Karbala and Najaf, which are home to shrines that are among the most sacred in Shia Islam.

In Manama, Bahrain, police fired tear gas to disperse about 5,000 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!"

The nearly two-mile march had been approved by security authorities, but police tried to stop the demonstrators halfway through, but protesters kept on moving and turned over an empty police car and set it on fire.

Bahrain's king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, fired his interior minister, saying the march should have been allowed to go on. A royal decree replaced Interior Minister Sheik Mohammed bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa with Gen. Rashed bin Abdallah bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa.

The U.S. military has said it is doing its best to avoid damage to the shrines in Iraq. In fighting last week, the Imam Ali mosque received four holes in its golden dome, and both sides blamed each other for the damage. The mosque is the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, who is revered by Shiites.

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