BAGHDAD, Iraq – Thousands of Shiites chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" marched through the streets of Baghdad's biggest Shiite district Friday in a show of support for Hezbollah militants battling Israeli troops in Lebanon.
No violence was reported during the rally in the Sadr City neighborhood.
The demonstration was the biggest in the Middle East in support of Hezbollah since the Israeli army launched an offensive July 12 after a guerrilla raid on northern Israel. The protest was organized by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political movement built around the Mahdi Army militia has been modeled after Hezbollah.
Al-Sadr summoned followers from throughout the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq to converge on Baghdad for the rally but he did not attend.
Demonstrators, wearing white burial shrouds symbolizing their willingness to die for Hezbollah, waved the group's yellow banner and chanted slogans in support of its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has attained a cult status in the Arab world for his defiance of Israel.
"Allah, Allah, give victory to Hassan Nasrallah," the crowd chanted.
"Mahdi Army and Hezbollah are one. Let them confront us if they dare," the predominantly male crowd shouted, waving the flags of Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iraq.
Many walked with umbrellas in the searing afternoon sun. Volunteers sprayed them with water.
"I am wearing the shroud and I am ready to meet martyrdom," said Mohammed Khalaf, 35, owner of a clothes shop in the southern city of Amarah.
Al-Sadr followers painted U.S. and Israeli flags on the main road leading to the rally site, and demonstrators stepped on them — a gesture of contempt in Iraq. Alongside the painted flags was written: "These are the terrorists."
Protesters set fire to American and Israeli flags, as well as effigies of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, showing the men with Dracula teeth. "Saddam and Bush, Two Faces of One Coin" was scrawled on Bush's effigy.
Iraqi government television said the Defense Ministry had approved the demonstration, a sign of public anger over Israel's offensive and of al-Sadr's stature as a major player in Iraqi politics.
"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.
Although the rally was about Hezbollah, it was also a show of strength by al-Sadr. Many people worried the presence of so many Shiite demonstrators — most of them from the Mahdi Army — would add to sectarian tensions in the city, which has seen almost daily clashes between Shiite and Sunni extremists.