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Shiites demand large role in Iraq

Al-Hakim has repeatedly called for U.S.-led coalition to leave Iraq
Al-Hakim has repeatedly called for U.S.-led coalition to leave Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Thousands of Shiite Muslims gathered in Baghdad Thursday to protest against a foreign administration in Iraq, and called for a Iraqi government dominated by majority Shiites.

Most of the protesters were from Al Hawza, a religious school in Najaf, one of the most holy sites for Shiites. They said they had suffered the most under Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime, which favored Sunni Muslims and cracked down on Shiites, who make up more than 60 percent of the population.

The organized Shiites have become divided into two camps. One supports the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by Mohammed Al-Hakim, who just returned after 23 years of exile in Iran, and his brother Abdul Aziz Hakim who is part of the negotiations for the new interim administration.

More fundamentalist Shiites, who support Muqtadir Al-Sadr, have boycotted several meetings with U.S. representatives, including the first one in Nasiriya.

Al-Hakim said Tuesday his group did not want a secular government because it would not respect religion, but called for "a democratic government that respects Islam."

Al-Hakim returned to Iraq on Saturday after 23 years in exile. Tens of thousands of supporters greeted him, and the celebrations continued Monday as he visited his birthplace, the holy city of Najaf. (On the scene)

U.S. officials have said they are concerned the Shiite leader might push for a theocracy similar to the one in Iran.

-- CNN Producer Vivian Paulsen contributed to this report


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