NAJAF, Iraq – Thousands of Shiites, many waving Islam's holy book over their heads, protested the U.S. presence in Iraq on Friday after the detention of several supporters of a radical cleric, while Sunnis shut down places of worship elsewhere in a show of anger over alleged sectarian violence against the minority.
The U.S. military also launched what it said would be an aggressive investigation into how a British newspaper got pictures of an imprisoned Saddam Hussein (search) clad only in his underwear, saying the photos violated military guidelines and possibly the Geneva Convention (search) on the humane treatment of prisoners.
The photos, which appeared on the front pages of the British tabloid Sun and the New York Post and were broadcast across the Middle East by some Arab satellite networks, were expected to fuel anti-American sentiment among supporters of the former dictator who are believed to be the driving force behind the country's insurgency.
The Shiite protests in the southern cities of Najaf, Kufa and Nasiriyah, came as Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search) announced that he will visit Syria, which has been accused of harboring insurgents bent on starting a civil war in Iraq.
The protests, which drew an estimated total of 6,000 demonstrators in the three cities, followed radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's (search) call Wednesday to reject the U.S. occupation of Iraq by painting Israeli and American flags on the ground outside mosques to be stepped on in protest raids against holy places.
In violence elsewhere, a bombing targeting the house of Iraqi national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, killed two civilians and wounded three in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah, police said.
After the explosion, gunmen in the nearby Azamiyah area opened fire at a U.S. base in Kazimiyah on the western side of the Tigris River, witnesses said. The gunmen later fled, they added. Witnesses reported seeing U.S. Apache attack helicopters firing rockets into the neighborhood.
A U.S. soldier also was killed early Friday in a vehicle accident caused by roadside bomb attack near Taji, 10 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. At least 1,628 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Al-Sadr's call for protests was made a day after U.S. and Iraqi forces detained 13 of his supporters during a raid on a Shiite mosque in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqi troops confiscated weapons from the mosque.
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 on Monday to demand that U.S.-led forces withdraw from the country.
"From this platform, 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 mosque in Kufa during Friday's sermon. "We say to the government do not be a tyrant like Saddam or (former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad) Allawi."
In the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Kufa, al-Sadr followers painted American and Israeli flags on most streets near mosques before stepping on them.
"Down, down Israel; down, down USA," chanted protesters following midday prayers at a Kufa mosque.
In Nasiriyah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, al-Sadr supporters clashed with guards at the headquarters of Dhi Qar provincial governor, Aziz Abed Alwan.
The fighting broke out before noon as about 2,000 members of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Amy (search) marched toward the cleric's local office, which is near the governor's headquarters.
Armed men guarding the headquarters shot toward the crowd in an apparent bid to disperse it, prompting retaliatory fire from al-Sadr supporters. Four policemen and four civilians were wounded, as were nine al-Sadr supporters, said Sheik al-Khafaji, an official at al-Sadr's Nasiriyah office.
Sunni clerics also delivered fiery sermons in Baghdad and Ramadi, in the volatile Sunni Triangle in western Iraq, repeating a call from three of Iraq's most influential Sunni organizations for the places of worship to be shut for three days to protest alleged Shiite violence against them.
One of those organizations, the Sunni Muslim Association of Muslim Scholars, on Wednesday accused a Shiite militia of allegedly killing Sunni clerics — a charge the group denied.
Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, were oppressed under Saddam, then emerged from the Jan. 30 elections with the biggest bloc in the National Assembly. They have allied with Kurds, who also were oppressed by Saddam, but have included Sunnis in the government in an effort to ease the minority's discontent over losing power.
The photos showed Saddam standing in his white underwear while holding what appeared to be a brown pair of trousers. In others, he is clothed and seated on a chair doing some washing. The Sun said it obtained the photos from "U.S. military sources."
The U.S. military in Baghdad said in a statement that the photos, which were believed to have been taken more than a year ago, violated its guidelines "and possibly Geneva Convention guidelines for the humane treatment of detained individuals."
U.S. military spokesman Staff Sgt. Don Dees said an investigation was launched Friday as soon as the military discovered the existence and use of the photographs.
Saddam, who was captured in December 2003, is being held by the U.s. military at an undisclosed location believed to be in the Iraqi capital. He faces charges including killing rival politicians during his 30-year rule, gassing Kurds, invading Kuwait in 1990 and suppressing Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in 1991. No trial dates have been set.
Aside from U.S. soldiers, those who have access to the toppled dictator include his legal team, prosecuting judge Raed Johyee and officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
ICRC Middle East spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said use of such photos is "clearly forbidden" and U.S. forces are obliged to "preserve the privacy of the detainee."
In Turkey, al-Jaafari said Iraq would not tolerate foreign fighters crossing the porous desert frontier that separates his country from Syria.
"We will visit Syria some time soon, and one of the issues that will be taken up will be the security file and the prevention of such infiltrations," he said.
A U.S. official said Wednesday that Syria was the site of a key meeting last month in which lieutenants of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) were ordered to carry out more attacks in Iraq. More than 520 people have been killed since the country's new Shiite-dominated government was announced April 28. Damascus has not commented on the allegations.
In another development, Iraq and Iran issued a joint statement blaming Saddam and other members of his regime for being the military aggressors in the 1980-88 war between both countries and Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War.
The statement, issued Thursday during Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's historic trip to Iraq, comes as the Shiite-dominated governments of both countries try to forge better ties following Saddam's ouster two years ago.