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Shi’ite cleric visits Baghdad church targeted in ’10 attack

BAGHDAD — Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reached out to Iraq’s religious minorities on Friday, visiting a Baghdad church desecrated in a deadly 2010 attack and a prominent Sunni mosque as public ­opposition spread against his rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The anti-US cleric’s stops at the holy sites — a rare public appearance outside predominantly Shi’ite parts of Iraq — came as tens of thousands of primarily Sunni protesters angry over perceived second-class treatment rallied to maintain pressure against Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.

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Friday’s demonstrations reached well beyond the desert province of Anbar that has been the hub of two weeks of unrest, touching a string of Sunni-dominated communities in Iraq’s north and west. Cries of ‘‘Down, down with al-Maliki’’ echoed in the streets of the northern city of Mosul, while protesters in the capital Baghdad accused the prime minister of being a liar.

The government has tried to appease the demonstrators by agreeing this week to release some detainees, bowing at least in part to one of their more emotionally charged demands. But that gesture has done little to stem their rage.

In a statement Friday, the prime minister urged government security forces to show restraint toward protesters. He also called on demonstrators to avoid acts of civil disobedience and warned them that ‘‘foreign agendas’’ seek to push Iraq toward sectarian conflict again.

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