Thousands of protesters rallied Friday in mostly Shiite cities across Iraq against what some are calling "sectarian attacks" by security forces against Shiite-led protesters in the Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain.
The demonstrations were among the largest in Iraq since the wave of dissent spread from Tunisia across the Middle East. Iraqi leaders fear Bahrain's unrest _ which worsened after Saudi and other Gulf armies intervened to defend the kingdom's rulers _ may ignite Shiite-Sunni strife around the region. Also, Iraq's majority Shiite population feel a kinship for their Shiite brethren in Bahrain and distrust the neighboring Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
"There are real massacres that are taking place in Bahrain," Shiite Sheik Maitham al-Jamri, who said he was a Bahraini cleric, told protesters in Baghdad's Sadr City. "But if they cut us to pieces and burn us 70 times, we won't stop our calls for change. If all means of communication were blocked in Bahrain, the voices of the people in Iraq and Lebanon calling, 'No, no to injustice!' can be heard loudly."
About 5,000 followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr turned out for the Sadr City rally, holding banners with pledges to join fellow Shiites in Bahrain who are facing their kingdom's security forces and troops brought in at the start of this week from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states to defend the tiny island's Sunni monarchy.
The Baghdad demonstrators set fire to American and Israeli flags.
"I am ready to sacrifice by my soul, blood and money to support and help our brothers in Bahrain," said one protester, Younis al-Moussawi.
Another demonstrator, Ali Abbas, accused Saudi forces of fueling tensions. "Why this sectarianism by Saudi Arabia, and why these attacks on peaceful people?" he said.
Vehicles drove through Baghdad with passengers waving Bahraini flags in solidarity. A few hundred demonstrators also gathered in downtown Tahrir Square, drawing scores of riot police armed with sticks and plastic shields.
Most of the Tahrir Square protesters were calling for more jobs, better services and the end of corruption in Iraq's government, and fought among themselves as small groups began provoking police and soldiers. Scattered gunfire could be heard near the square, and security forces set off at least one anti-riot sound bomb to break up the unruly crowd.
"Peaceful, peaceful demonstration!" called a chain of protesters who linked arms across the road as a line of riot police approached.
In the southern city of Basra, about 2,000 people demonstrated in the center of the city, while protesters also took to the streets in the southern cities of Najaf and Kufa.
Friday marked the first widespread demonstrations by Iraqis in support of protest movements outside their country. So far, demonstrators here have focused on forcing changes in Iraq.
In a sign of how seriously Iraq's Shiite leadership is taking the Bahrain strife, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani _ Iraqi-based Shiism's highest ranking cleric in the Mideast _ suspended teachings at religious schools across Iraq on Friday in a show of solidarity with the protesters.
A representative of al-Sistani warned during his Friday sermon in the holy city of Karbala that the brutal images of what is happening in Bahrain will inflame passions and lead to sectarian problems in the region.
"They sent military forces to Bahrain and this step has bad and dangerous consequences," said Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie.
Lara Jakes contributed to this report in Baghdad.