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Supporters of a militant Shiite cleric protest in central Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thousands of supporters of a young Shiite cleric Friday staged the largest protest march since the fall of Baghdad nearly a year ago, gathering near the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition here to decry the closure last week of their newspaper.

The huge turnout—estimated at 20,000—was a disciplined flexing of muscle by the followers of Sheik Muqtada al Sadr and capped six straight days of growing protests against U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer's order shutting down the paper.

Coming two days after the mutilation of four American civilian security guards in the restive town of Fallujah, the demonstration added to the sense of insecurity that is widespread here.

U.S. military authorities Friday reported the deaths of two more U.S. soldiers—one a Marine killed Thursday in an unexplained incident near Fallujah, the other an Army soldier killed Friday by a remote-controlled bomb in Baghdad—and organizers canceled an international trade fair that was to have begun on Monday.

There was no sign of military movements near Fallujah, where U.S. military leaders have vowed a response to the killings and mutilations. A Marine spokesman, Capt. Christopher Logan, said by e-mail that the Marines are "working with the Iraqi police to recover all of the remains of the contractors."

Sadr, 30, has been the most strident public opponent of the U.S. occupation since the end of Saddam Hussein's regime, and U.S. authorities have tried for months to sideline him. But Friday's protest showed that the last surviving son of a prominent family of Iraqi Shiite clerics that was systematically assassinated during Saddam's rule has a loyal following.

"No, no to America! No, no to colonization! No, no to Israel," the protesters shouted in a demonstration that snarled central Baghdad traffic for several hours.

"Yes, yes Muqtada!" the men and boys chanted in a mass that stretched a mile. "Yes, yes jihad," they added, using the Arabic expression for holy struggle, and, sometimes, war.

The protest was the largest ever adjacent to the Green Zone, the city area encircled by barbed wire and concrete where U.S.-led coalition officials live and work. It came amid a steady rise in attacks on coalition forces and their supporters and a week before the anniversary of Baghdad's fall to U.S. forces.

Sadr lives in the southern city of Najaf but has steadily drawn wider support. A black-clad militia called Mahdi's Army serves him, drawing recruits from Baghdad's southern slums to the Shiite south around Basra, Najaf and Karbala.

Bremer ordered the Al Hawsa newspaper closed for 60 days last week on the grounds that it was inciting violence against U.S. and other coalition troops. The paper was considered Sadr's mouthpiece.

U.S. officials tried to put the best face on the growing protests.

"This is all part of the language and rhythm and tone of a free society," Dan Senor, the coalition's principal spokesman, said this week. "We think whether individual Iraqis support the measures we take or are critical of the measures we take that they would all probably agree that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, is a good thing."

The centerpiece of Friday's Baghdad demonstration was a speech by Sadr's Baghdad envoy, Sayid Hazem al Araqi, who condemned the U.S. presence here and decried the Iraqi Governing Council.

Together, he said, the U.S. and proxy Iraqis have created "streets full of thieves, carjackers and rubbish," encouraged adultery by trying to crack down on so-called honor killings and flirted with reconciliation of the reviled Baath Party by only dismissing from jobs top tier workers who swore allegiance to Saddam's movement.

"We fought Saddam, and now we're fighting the Americans," the sheik said. "Listen America, Britain and Israel, there's a man named Muqtada Sadr and he gives resistance fighters their courage."

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(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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