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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Friday for the closure of bars and liquor shops in Iraq following a renewed campaign by authorities in Baghdad to shut down nightclubs and shops selling alcohol.
Hundreds of Sadr's followers rallied in the Husseiniya district of northern Baghdad, heeding his call to take to the streets after Friday prayers in support of a ban. Many carried Sadr's photograph and held up banners which read "We call for the immediate closure of all nightclubs and bars".
"Walk out after the sacred Friday prayers to demonstrate support for the closure of the bars and liquor shops," Sadr said in a statement.
"Stand against those who want to disseminate corruption, intoxication, and addiction (to alcohol), to make Iraq drift towards ignorance, corruption, lewdness, to make our society rot like the West."
Authorities last year ordered the closure of all Baghdad nightclubs and shops selling alcohol because of concern that the venues were undermining morals. The provincial council has renewed its efforts to close clubs and liquor shops.
Mainly Muslim Iraq is a conservative society, where many women cover their hair and bodies and most men and women eschew alcohol, which is proscribed under Islamic law.
However, Iraq's stance on alcohol is still relatively liberal compared to its neighbours Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where the possession of alcohol is banned.
Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, legally allowed shops to sell alcohol, although bars and nightclubs were banned towards the end of his rule.
The call by Sadr to shut down clubs and liquor stores throughout the country has angered some who say it is a move to turn Iraq into a more hardline Islamic state.
"What is going on are attempts to turn Iraq into an Islamic republic similar to the one in Iran," an Iraqi writer and a member of the Iraqi union for writers said, declining to give his name.
"They (authorities) said that they will close the stores and the clubs that do not have a valid licence. At the same time the relevant government departments are not issuing new licences," the writer said.
Sadr's political movement flexed its newfound muscle in talks to form a government when it emerged as a kingmaker after winning 39 seats in the March parliamentary election.
Sadr's decision to back Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was a turning point in an eight-month political impasse and put Maliki in the driver's seat for a second term.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Alison Williams