Supporters of radical Shi'ite cleric rally in Iraq

BAGHDAD Fri Oct 8, 2010 12:21pm EDT

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather after Friday prayers in Sadr City in Baghdad October 8, 2010 to support the decision of Iraq's incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as nominee for the post. Maliki was picked on October 2 as the nominee for the top government job from his Shi'ite-led National Alliance after he secured support from al-Sadr, an anti-American Shi'ite cleric whose militia once fought against U.S. troops in Iraq. REUTERS/Kareem Raheem

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather after Friday prayers in Sadr City in Baghdad October 8, 2010 to support the decision of Iraq's incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as nominee for the post. Maliki was picked on October 2 as the nominee for the top government job from his Shi'ite-led National Alliance after he secured support from al-Sadr, an anti-American Shi'ite cleric whose militia once fought against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Credit: Reuters/Kareem Raheem

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Hundreds of followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets in Iraq on Friday to show support for their leader's decision to nominate Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister for a second term.

Maliki won the nomination with support from Sadr's movement which previously opposed a second term for the incumbent. Once Sadr's foe, Maliki sent troops to crush Sadr's Mehdi Army militia in 2008.

More than a thousand Sadr supporters demonstrated in Iraq's southern city of Basra on Friday, while in the holy city of Kerbala, hundreds more took to the streets to push for the speedy formation of a government.

In Baghdad's Sadr City -- the Shi'ite cleric's stronghold in the capital -- hundreds rallied after Friday prayers in support of their leader. All the rallies were peaceful and orderly.

"The leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, made his decision for us," Hassan Abdul-Hussain, a 36-year-old government employee, told Reuters. "We obey it fully and without controversy because we all know he looks out for Iraq and Iraqis."

Iraq has been without a new government for seven months since an election that failed to produce a clear winner, leaving Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians jockeying for power.

The National Alliance, a merger of Maliki's Shi'ite-led State of Law coalition and Iran-friendly Iraqi National Alliance (INA), backed Maliki after months of argument. But he still faces severe obstacles in his bid for prime minister.

The decision marked a breakthrough in talks among Iraq's political factions. The Sadrists, who won around 40 seats, will be looking to play a larger role in the next government.

The Sadr movement has called for a series of oil contracts -- seen as key investment deals -- signed by Iraq with major oil firms like BP and Shell to be rewritten.

"This decision will yield results soon," Hussain said. "We have a wise leadership and its decisions are for the interest of the Iraqis and to speed up the long-awaited formation of the government."

Iraqis had hoped the March election would produce a stable government after decades of dictatorship, economic sanctions and war as U.S. troops prepare to leave by the end of 2011.

At the rally in Baghdad, support for Sadr was unflinching.

"We support decisions made by Moqtada al-Sadr," said Kadhim Hamdan, 28, while holding up a banner and shouting words of support. "Even if he asks us to go to hell, we will go."

(Writing by Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Serena Chaudhry)

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