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Iraqi cleric urges attacks on US troops over Gaza

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SAMEER N. YACOUB | January 7, 2009 04:21 PM EST | AP

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BAGHDAD — Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Wednesday urged reprisals against American forces in Iraq to protest Israel's Gaza offensive, as Arab anger grows over civilian deaths in the Palestinian territory.

The strongly worded statement signaled a threat by al-Sadr's militia fighters to renew violence against American troops after months of relative calm.

It was unclear, however, just how much influence the once-powerful Shiite leader _ who is believed to be in Iran _ still has. His fighters have been hit hard in U.S.-Iraqi military operations over the past year.

The U.S. State Department dismissed al-Sadr's calls, describing them as "outrageous."

"Any call for attacks against Americans is outrageous and, frankly, not worthy of much more comment," deputy State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters. "Outside calls to attack Americans for what's going on in the region are outrageous."

The Bush administration held off Wednesday from backing an Egyptian-French cease-fire proposal in Gaza, saying it was exploring other options to secure a lasting agreement that would end the violence.

Iraqis have expressed outrage over the Israeli offensive and what is perceived as U.S. inaction, holding protests to show solidarity with the Palestinians. The issue has again put the spotlight on Iraq's relations with Israel as the two countries remain technically at war.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki expressed "great pain and sorrow" over the Israeli offensive and accused the international community of ignoring the plight of the Palestinians.

"It is regrettable that this brutal crime continues with the silence of the international community," he told reporters Tuesday.

He called on other Arab and Muslim nations to "abolish diplomatic relations" with Israel and to "stop all public and clandestine contacts with this murderous regime." Only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have peace treaties with Israel.

In his own statement, al-Sadr said more action was needed "due to the continuation of Arab silence and the massacres committed by the Zionist enemy under U.S. and international cover."

"I call upon the honest Iraqi resistance to carry out revenge operations against the great accomplice of the Zionist enemy," he said, using rhetoric referring to the United States and Israel.

He also urged that Palestinian flags be raised on mosques, churches and buildings in Iraq and that all countries close Israeli embassies.

Al-Sadr and his militiamen have been staunch opponents of the U.S. presence in Iraq and waged fierce battles in 2004 followed by years of sectarian violence. He ordered his fighters to stand down in 2007 but retained a smaller force.

But his movement's popularity has suffered with the involvement of some militiamen in protection and black market rackets, as well as general fatigue from on-again, off-again fighting.

Israel says it launched the offensive to end rocketing by the Islamic militant group Hamas that has traumatized southern Israel.

Palestinian and U.N. figures show that about 300 of the more than 670 Palestinians killed so far have been civilians.

Israel has lost six soldiers since launching a ground offensive on Saturday _ four in "friendly fire" incidents _ and four other Israelis have been killed by rocket fire since fighting began on Dec. 27.

In Jordan, meanwhile, two Iraqi planes carrying several tons of medicine, medical supplies, blankets and water reserves containers to be sent to Gaza, landed in Amman airport Tuesday, the Iraqi Red Crescent said.

Rasoul Khedayer, the agency's representative in Jordan, said "Iraq will continue to bring aid supplies to the people of Gaza and will fly more than 10 planes in the coming few days into Jordan."

Also Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Shiites joined processions to honor the martyrdom of one of their most revered saints. More than 30,000 policemen and soldiers were deployed in Baghdad, Karbala and on roads between the two cities to guard the ceremonies.

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Associated Press writer Mazin Yahya in Baghdad and Shafika Mattar in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.