BAGHDAD (AP) — An anti-American cleric galvanized thousands of followers to rally Friday for more jobs and government aid in demonstrations that showed his support among Shiites, who are vital supporters of Iraq's political leaders.
Caskets carried through the streets of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad symbolized Iraq's electricity outages, slim food rations and unemployment. Police estimated 25,000 protesters turned out in Sadr City, the political stronghold of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Similar demonstrations took place in the southern cities of Basra and Najaf.
"We want services, jobs and a portion of the oil revenue to be distributed to people. Immediately, immediately, immediately," Sadrist official Ibrahim al-Jabiri told the Shiite crowds in Baghdad.
Iraqi and Shiite religious flags were hoisted in the air, and protesters held up broken lamps, fans, air coolers, heaters and generators as a sign of their frustration over electricity outages that have plagued the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Al-Sadr is in Iran, where he has been studying at religious schools. He is the fiercest opponent of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He has repeatedly demanded full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year, as required under a 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington.
Negotiations between the two countries are under way over the possibility that some U.S. troops might remain after the deadline.
Though he has lived mostly in Iran for several years, his influence has grown since last fall, when he publicly endorsed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to remain in power, even though the premier's party fell short of winning national elections. Most of al-Sadr's followers are among the poorest Iraqis, and he has often hammered the government to produce more aid for them.
At the Basra and Najaf rallies, hundreds of Sadrists also shouted anti-American slogans among their calls for better services.
"The people want the occupiers to leave," they shouted. "The people want to reform the regime."
Continued instability in Iraq's government and security forces, combined with Iran's growing influence in Baghdad, has led al-Maliki and President Barack Obama to weigh whether to keep between 3,000 and 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline.
In a letter released early Friday, 41 experts, former lawmakers and top officials in the administration of former President George W. Bush called on Obama to keep far more than 4,000 troops in Iraq — a figure the White House is reportedly considering. The letter released by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative-leaning group in Washington, did not suggest how many troops would be adequate.
Among the letter's mostly Republican signers were L. Paul Bremer, who ran the U.S. occupation of Iraq until June 2004 and then was involved in a long and destabilizing struggle to elect a government and write a constitution, and Bush political adviser Karl Rove.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.