BAGHDAD (AP) - Firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited a Baghdad church that was the scene of a deadly 2010 attack as well as one of the Iraqi capital's main Sunni mosques on Friday, an apparent overture to other religious groups as opposition mounts against his rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The cleric's stops at the holy sites - a rare public appearance by Al-Sadr outside predominantly Shiite parts of Iraq - came as tens of thousands of protesters angry over perceived second-class treatment gathered in Sunni-dominated areas to maintain pressure against al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
Al-Sadr, wearing his signature black cloak and turban, said he visited the Our Lady of Salvation church to express sorrow at the attack and send a message of peace to Iraq's Christian community.
The visit comes amid rising sectarian tensions a year after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Al-Sadr grudgingly backed fellow Shiite al-Maliki following elections in 2010. But last year he joined Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for al-Maliki to resign.
Al-Sadr, since coming to prominence following the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, has frequently made overtures to Sunnis and others. But militias loyal to him were some of the worst perpetrators of sectarian violence last decade, and he is still viewed with hostility or suspicion by many Sunnis, Kurds and others.
At the church, al-Sadr sat quietly in the front pew, listening and nodding as Father Ayssar al-Yas welcomed him. The priest then gave al-Sadr a tour of the recently renovated church, pointing out places where attackers in 2010 killed priests and worshippers during a church service ambush. Over 50 were killed in the attack, blamed on Sunni extremists.
Al-Maliki himself attended a ceremony to officially reopen the church last month.
Al-Sadr's heavily protected convoy then made its way to the al-Gailani mosque, one of Baghdad's most prominent Sunni places of worship, shortly before midday Friday prayers.
As he entered the mosque, one worshipper called out that he is "the unifier of Sunnis and Shiites." Another hailed him as "the patriot, the patriot."
Al-Sadr this week spoke up for the Sunni protesters, and echoed that sentiment again Friday.
"We support the demands of the people, but I urge them to safeguard Iraq's unity," he said in brief comments inside the mosque following the Sunni imam's speech and midday prayers.
As he left, women in the courtyard ululated and showered him with candy.
Protesters, meanwhile, massed in several Sunni areas around the country.
The demonstrations appeared to be some of the largest in a wave of rallies over the past two weeks that erupted following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials.
The detention of female prisoners has been a focus of the demonstrations, though the protests tap into deeper Sunni feelings of perceived discrimination and unfair application of laws against their sect by al-Maliki's government.
Iraqi authorities this week ordered the release of 11 women facing criminal charges and pledged to transfer other women prisoners to jails in their home provinces in a nod to protesters' demands.
But demonstrators Friday continued to press for more prisoners to be released.
Several thousand people took to the streets amid tight security outside Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque after the midday prayers. They demanded the release of detainees, and held banners with slogans against the politicization of the judiciary and calling for an end to corruption.
Their chants included: "Iran out!" - a reference to what many Iraqis see as their neighbor's influence over the government - and "Nouri al-Maliki is a liar."
Local TV broadcast what appeared to be tens of thousands of protesters massed along a highway near the western city of Ramadi, which has been the focus of demonstrations and sit-ins in recent weeks.
About 3,000 people gathered in the northern city of Mosul, where they called for the release of female prisoners and to end to what they say are random arrests of Sunnis. Among their chants were: "Down, down with al-Maliki" and "No to sectarianism."
In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, about 1,000 protested to demand the release of Sunni detainees.
Protests were also reported in the Sunni strongholds of Fallujah and Tikrit.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting.
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