Baghdad: Followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr marched south of Baghdad on Monday to protest the appointment of a provincial police chief they accuse of links to a rival Shiite faction and to Saddam Hussain's ousted regime.
The angry demonstration in Hilla, the Babil provincial capital, underscored deep rivalries that threaten stability in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, generally one of the calmer parts of Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Such regional divides increasingly are playing out on a national stage, where Al Sadr's followers abandoned Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's fragile government earlier this year.
The protest resulted from Al Maliki's appointment of Brigadier General Fadhil Radam Sultani to succeed Major General Qais Mamouri, who was killed in a December 9 bombing targeting his convoy.
More than 100 people participated in the Hilla protest, which was organised by Al Sadr's office there. Fifteen members of the provincial governing council also submitted a letter urging provincial authorities to insist on a neutral police chief.
Mamouri's assassination was the latest in a series of attacks against provincial leaders in southern Iraq, where Shiite factions and their militias are engaged in a bloody struggle for power and control over the region's oil wealth.
Mamouri, who was viewed as independent, was praised for cracking down on militias and resisting pressure to release detainees linked to powerful political factions. Hours before his death, US Army Colonel Tom James US had told reporters in Baghdad that Babil was lucky to have him.
Sultani does not have Mamouri's commanding personality, and many residents fear that he will be manipulated more easily.
Al Sadr's followers and members of Al Maliki's own Dawa Islamic party rejected Sultani's appointment because he served as an intelligence official in Najaf under Saddam, who persecuted Shiites. They claim that Sultani's term there coincided with the 1980 execution of Al Sadr's revered father, Mohammad Baqir Al Sadr.
Ahmad Masaoudi, an Al Sadr representative from Hilla in Iraq's national parliament, also accused Mamouri of ties to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), lead by rival Shiite cleric Abdul Azziz Al Hakim. SIIC is the dominant party in Al Maliki's governing coalition.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of Iraq's ancient Chaldean Church and the country's first cardinal, celebrated Midnight Mass on December 24 in the late afternoon at the Church of the Virgin Mary because most residents hurry home soon after nightfall.
North of Baghdad, hundreds of worshippers filled the courtyard of the ancient Tahira (Immaculate) Church near Mosul, where a huge bonfire was lit and a marching band played.
The region is home to many of Iraq's oldest churches and has become a refuge for Christians fleeing sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad and other parts of the country.