BAGHDAD (AP) - Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reached out to Iraq's religious minorities 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-U.S. cleric's stops at the holy sites - a rare public appearance outside predominantly Shiite parts of Iraq - came as tens of thousands of primarily Sunni protesters angry over perceived second-class treatment rallied to maintain pressure against al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
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.
Al-Sadr to be trying to capitalize on the political turmoil by attempting to portray himself as a unifying figure ahead of provincial elections in the spring. He spoke up for the Sunni protesters' right to demonstrate earlier this week, and echoed that sentiment again Friday.
"We support the demands of the people, but I urge them to safeguard Iraq's unity," he said.
The cleric said he visited the Our Lady of Salvation church to express sorrow at the attack and send a message of peace to Iraq's dwindling Christian community, which is estimated to number about 400,000 to 600,000.
He sat quietly in the front pew, listening and nodding as Father Ayssar al-Yas described recent renovations to the church. The priest then led al-Sadr on a tour, pointing out places where attackers killed more than 50 people, including priests and worshippers, in an ambush during a 2010 Mass.