KARBALA, Iraq - Iraqi clerics called fresh anti-US protests Wednesday at the climax of a pilgrimage by hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims.
In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Baghdad, loudspeaker trucks had been touring since Tuesday evening calling for a huge anti-US demonstration the following morning.
"We invite you to join a peaceful protest against the foreign occupation which will leave from the south gate of the Imam Hussein mausoleum," the city's main shrine, the loud-hailers said.
Even before the kick-off time for the rally, chants of "No to America and Saddam, yes to Islam" rang out around the city, from which US troops have kept a discreet distance throughout the pilgrimage.
Organizing committee member Sheikh Raed Haidari said the protest would also target Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmad Chalabi, a deeply secular Shiite regarded by the US military as a possible future leader of Iraq.
"We refuse occupation, we want an elected government that represents the people," Sheikh Raed said.
In a development likely to further inflame tensions between the coalition and Iraq's majority Shiite community, a prominent cleric charged that he had been beaten by US troops.
"Our arrest by the Americans was worse than the arrests that Saddam ordered against our students," Sheikh Mohammed al-Fartusi told Abu Dhabi television.
Fartusi, whose followers said he was detained Sunday along with five other Shiites, reappeared in Baghdad on Tuesday to cheers from hundreds of supporters who had held protests for two days.
"We were beaten .. spent a night with our hands tied behind our backs," Fartusi said, adding however that an American officer did turn up and offer an apology.
"It was disgusting. Despite that none of our young men has pointed a weapon against America ... but next time, God alone knows what popular anger could lead to?" the cleric warned.
US officials have said they could not confirm Fartusi's arrest, but reports that the prominent mullah had been detained infuriated Shiites.