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Thousands protest in Iraq against Saudi Shi'ite cleric execution

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched in Baghdad and Iraq’s southern Shi’ite cities on Monday condemning the execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric by Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh’s execution on Saturday of the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and three other Shi’ites on terrorism charges along with dozens of Sunni jihadists have stirred up protracted Middle East rivalries and driven up tension across the region.

Saudi Arabia cut ties with Shi-ite Iran, and fellow-Sunni Bahrain and Sudan followed suit on Monday, two days after Iranian demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest at Nimr’s death. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also downgraded its ties with Iran.

In Baghdad on Monday, demonstrators carrying portraits of Nimr rallied outside the Green Zone, a heavily fortified district that houses government departments and diplomatic representations, including the newly reopened Saudi embassy.Police guarding the zone pushed back a group that attempted to cross a line of barbed wire as they chanted “Damned, damned be Al Saud!,” referring to the Saudi ruling family.

Similar protests were held in Basra, southern Iraq’s biggest city, and in the holy Shi’ite cities of Najaf and Kerbala.

“Killing Sheikh Nimr is the beginning of your downfall,” shouted demonstrators in Kerbala, addressing the Saudi ruling family. They carried a coffin symbolizing a funeral for the cleric.

In Basra, the demonstrators held signs urging the population, the traders and the government to boycott Saudi products, echoing similar calls by Shi’ite politicians over the past two days.

Prominent Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday called for the demonstrations in Iraq and urged the government to cut off ties with Saudi Arabia. Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia last week reopened its embassy in Iraq, closed in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Reporting by Saif Hameed, Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Richard Balmforth