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Thousands protest against Iraqi constitution

Firebrand Sadr likens new Iraqi constitution to British declaration inviting Jews to settle in Palestine in 1917.

BAGHDAD - Thousands of Iraqis protested in the centre of Baghdad against a new interim constitution on Friday, while their religious leaders refrained from calling for a mass rebellion.

"No, no to the basic law," the crowd chanted, waving banners that read: "We do not want an American constitution".

"Yes for the unity of Iraq," they shouted at the peaceful rally in Ferus Square.

Shiite clerics at weekly prayers also denounced the constitution, which Iraq's US-picked Governing Council signed at the start of the week.

Young firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr lived up to his reputation for being blunt when he likened the text to a British declaration inviting Jews to settle in Palestine in 1917.

"This constitution is like the Balfour Declaration that sold Palestine. We are selling Iraq and Islam. This is a bad signal to send," he told the faithful at a mosque in Kufa, near Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Baghdad.

A new text should be written based on the Koran and Iraqi people's own ideas, Sadr suggested.

"I call on the Kurds to come closer to their Muslim brothers and to remember their Islamic identity, which is more important than their Kurdish identity," he said.

In addition, the cleric condemned "all those who cooperate with the non-believers, whatever sort of cooperation, be it cultural or political."

The basic law, created under the watchful eye of the United States, has drawn heavy criticism from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority - who has called it an obstacle to a permanent charter.

Clerics in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, where Sistani is based, echoed their leader's concerns, which centre around a veto clause in the document that gives certain power to the Kurdish north and the fact that an unelected body is able to bind a future elected parliament.

Another cleric in Najaf, Sadreddin Kubanji, criticised the "weakness" of the constitution and said the power it gives to Kurds "threatens the unity of the country."

Elsewhere in Karbala, a second Sistani mouthpiece, Ahmed Safi, said the basic law must be "written by the hand of Iraqis" without outside intervention.


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