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NASIRIYAH, Iraq (AP) -- Hundreds of white-clad worshippers sat cross-legged on a boulevard in this war-shattered city Friday and listened to a cleric's exhortation: Iraqis must unite to create an Islamic state.
The same message resounded across Iraq on the main day of Muslim prayers, as clerics spoke about the need to come together after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Some urged the United States to leave Iraq.
"It is a happy day for us because we can pray freely. It has been a long time," said Mohamed Ghalib, a 22-year-old student among the 2,000 worshippers filling two blocks of a main thoroughfare in Nasiriyah, the southern city that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the war.
At one Baghdad mosque, worshippers listened to a white-turbaned cleric, Abdel-Hadi al-Muhammadawi, demand that foreign "occupiers" leave Iraq, an apparent reference to the United States and Britain.
Then the cleric, a Kalashnikov assault rifle before him, recounted a tale of imprisonment and torture at the hands of Saddam's henchmen.
"They tortured my son in front of my cell to put pressure on me. They tore apart my turban," the sheik said, and he burst into tears. Hundreds of his followers wept along with him.
Clerics from both of Islam's main groupings -- Sunnis and Shiites -- called for unity and equality in a new Iraq. But the Shiite messages are the ones attracting the most attention these days.
The Shiites, long repressed under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, comprise 60 percent of the country's population of 24 million and they are fast filling a power vacuum left by Saddam's ouster.
"We have to be ready in the long term to establish our own Islamic state," said Asaad al-Nasseri, a prominent Shiite cleric who just returned from exile in Syria, speaking to the crowd in Nasiriyah.
Iraqi Shiites are organizing local committees, doling out funds to pay salaries, collecting looted property and sending militias to secure hospitals and electric plants. They have raised concerns that some may try to install a theocracy like the one next door, in Shiite-dominated Iran.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld indicated Washington will not allow that.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said.
Although Shiites and the Sunnis often disagree, the sermons in Baghdad's mosques on Friday were of a piece, calling on the faithful to pull together in restoring the disorderly and troubled country.
Said Sheik Moayed al-Aathami, who led the prayers at the Sunni Abi Hanifah mosque in the neighborhood of Azamiya: "We want brotherly people, who help each other in times of difficulties."
"We want Muslim people equal in rights and duties -- Kurds, Arabs and minorities. We want Muslim people with no sectarian sensitivities," al-Aathami said.
In Baghdad's al-Mansour neighborhood, Shiite Muslims held prayers at the al-Rahman mosque, still under construction, and chanted in one voice, "Muslims. Not Sunnis or Shiites."
In Nasiriyah, Al-Nasseri said clerics should play a constructive role in postwar Iraq without overstepping their bounds.
"We have to preserve this country by respecting the professionals and not interfere in their work," he said.
As an example, he said clerics can help reopen hospitals without presuming to tell doctors how to treat their patients.
He also urged his followers to end the orgy of looting and lawlessness that has plagued Iraq since the fall of Saddam's government earlier this month.
"Looting is forbidden in our religion. The people of Iraq must make it a priority to preserve this property," he said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)