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Muqtada al-Sadr, anti-US cleric, inspires massive rally on Iraq war anniversary

Followers of the controversial cleric converge in Iraq ahead of landmark Arab League meeting there.

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Followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold up a poster of their leader as they march on a US flag during a 2007 rally in Basra, Iraq. (Essam Al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images)

Crowds loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr today marked the ninth anniversary of the US-led Iraq War with a protest that drew hundreds of thousands in the Iraqi city of Basra, reported the Associated Press (AP)

The move was also seen as a call for recognition by Iraq's historically-oppressed Shiites ahead of a March 27-29 Arab League meeting to be held in Baghdad.

The event, Iraq's first such opportunity in 20 years, is being seen as its debut on the Arab world stage, according to Reuters.  

Today's protest in the city of Basra, which lies just south of Baghad, saw Iraqis outraged over the lack of basic necessities nearly a decade after the US invasion.

The country suffers from high unemployment, damaged infrastructure, widespread crime and corruption, and recurrent electricity outages -- all concerns that united protesters, with Reuters reporting demonstrators carrying black caskets marked "Electricity," "Education" and "Democracy."

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But Shiite-Sunni strains were also evident in today's event, said Reuters, noting Sadr's followers often attack other Arab Sunni for persecuting their Shiite communities. 

While the al-Sadrists are technically allied with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- who is set to be the first-ever major Shiite Arab leader to lead an Arab League summit -- their relationship is frought by old grievances, according to AP

Iraqi government forces ousted forces loyal to al-Sadr from Basra and eastern Baghdad in 2008. 

The al-Sadr protest could make some of the leaders attending the upcoming Arab League summit in Baghdad, all of which are Sunni, uncomfortable, said Reuters. (Syria's Assad, having been suspended from the group, will not be present.)

The majority of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, with Shiite populations dominate in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and other areas within countries throughout the region. 

Al-Sadr recently spent over three years of self-imposed exile in Iran, where he pursued theological studies, returning to Iraq with great fanfare in January 2011, according to the BBC

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iraq/120319/muqtada-al-sadr-anti-us-cleric-inspires-massive-rally-