BAGHDAD Followers of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated in Baghdad and Basra on Wednesday in support of mainly-Shi'ite demonstrators in Bahrain, denouncing intervention by Saudi troops.
The crackdown by Bahrain's Saudi-backed Sunni royal family against protesters from the country's Shi'ite majority has galvanized Iraq's own Shi'ite community, exacerbating the sectarian tension that led to years of war in Iraq.
Hospital sources in Bahrain said at least three policemen and two protesters had died in clashes on Wednesday after the ruling Sunni family declared martial law and summoned troops from Saudi Arabia and police from the United Arab Emirates.
"Moqtada al-Sadr is calling for demonstrations today in Baghdad and Basra to support the Bahraini people and to denounce and condemn the murdering of innocent revolutionaries," senior Sadr aide Hazem al-Araji told Reuters.
In Baghdad, several thousand protesters gathered in Sadr's stronghold of Sadr City, waving Bahraini and Iraqi flags and chanting "Yes, yes to Bahrain!." One banner read: "The rulers of Saudi Arabia are killers!"
In Basra, the crowd numbered in the hundreds. Sadoun al-Lami, head of Sadr's office in the city said: "We denounce Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and call on the international community to put an end to the bloodshed."
One of four senior Shi'ite clerics in Iraq's holy city of Najaf, Basheer al-Najafi, also condemned the "irresponsible" crackdown in Bahrain.
"The government surprised us by the arrival of armed forces from neighboring countries... who assaulted villages and attacked and shed the blood of unarmed citizens who raised slogans of peace..." Najafi said in a statement.
Iraq, like Bahrain, has a Shi'ite majority that complained for decades of oppression under a ruling class of Sunni Muslims who dominate throughout the Arab world.
Since U.S. forces toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and replaced him with a Shi'ite-led government, Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors have had uneasy relations with Baghdad.
Shi'ites in Iraq have sided with their fellow Shi'ites in Bahrain and oppose intervention by Sunni Gulf neighbors. Iraq's Sunnis say they fear an increase in influence by Shi'ite Iran.
Iraq has seen its own demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities as protests sweep through the Arab world this year, but in recent weeks they had not taken on a sectarian character.
Sadr, who violently opposed the presence of U.S. troops in the country, is now a major figure in the governing coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, while commanding wide support of Shi'ites, especially the poor in Baghdad and the south.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rashid in Baghdad, Aref Mohammed in Basra and Khaled Farhan in Najaf; Writing by Peter Graff)