BAGHDAD - Thousands of Iraqi sympathizers, both Sunni and Shiite Muslim, forced their way through US military roadblocks in a bid to bring aid from the capital to the besieged Sunni rebel bastion of Fallujah.
Troops in armored vehicles attempted to stop the convoy of cars and pedestrians from reaching the western town where US marines have met ferocious resistance in a two-day-old offensive against the insurgents.
But the US contingents were overwhelmed as residents of villages west of the capital came to the convoy's assistance, hurling insults and stones at the beleaguered troops.
US troops watch Iraqis marching towards the flashpoint town of Fallujah. Thousands of Sunni and Shiite Muslim sympathizers forced their way through US military roadblocks in a bid to bring aid from the capital to the besieged Sunni rebel bastion of Fallujah. (AFP/Karim Sahib)
Some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Baghdad, a US patrol was attacked just moments before the Iraqi marchers arrived, and armed insurgents could be seen dancing around on two blazing military vehicles.
Two US Humvees attempted to stop the marchers but were forced to drive off as residents joined the marchers, shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greater).
US troops armed with machine guns and backed up by armour again blocked the highway further west, but were forced to let the Iraqis past as they came under a hail of stones.
The cross-community demonstration of support for Fallujah had been organized by Baghdad clerics both Sunni and Shiite amid reports that the death toll in the town had reached 105 since Tuesday evening.
The rare display of sectarian unity came after Shiite radicals launched an uprising in cities across central and southern Iraq, shattering a year of relative tolerance of the US-led occupation from the country's majority community.
"No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for Islamic unity," the marchers chanted. "We are Sunni and Shiite brothers and will never sell our country."
The marchers set off from the Um al-Qora mosque in west Baghdad where wellwishers donated food, drinks and medicine.
They carried portraits of Shiite radical leader Moqtada Sadr, as well as pictures of Sunni Islamist icon, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement who was assassinated in an Israeli air raid last month.
"Our families in Fallujah, remember that our dead go to heaven and theirs to hell," read a banner held aloft by the crowd.
Mosque imam Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Ghafur al-Samarrai said the US-led coalition had given the Iraqi Red Crescent permission to organize a relief convoy but made no secret of his hostility to the US offensive in Fallujah.
"The Iraqi Red Crescent got permission from the coalition, following negotiations over one day and one night to bring these supplies into the city," Samarrai said.
"Baghdad residents decided to send initially 90 cars with food and medicines to Fallujah families," he told AFP.
"We want to express solidarity with our brothers who are being bombed by warplanes and tanks.
"It is a form of jihad (holy war) which can also come in the form of demonstrations, donations and fighting. The people who are occupied have the right to fight occupation, whatever the means they use."
The Sunni cleric called on US commanders to stop the bloody offensive they launched in Fallujah on tuesday after four US civilian contractors were killed in the town and two of their bodies mutilated.
"This only brings hatred and enmity," Samarrai said of the US assault.
"They killed the elderly praying at the mosques, as well as women and children. This is indiscriminate killing."
The cleric said he opposed the way the bodies of the American contractors had been treated but insisted that what the US marines were now doing in Fallujah was no better. They "are doing the same by mutilating the residential neighborhoods," he said.
© Copyright 2004 AFP