BAGHDAD, April 9 -- Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims loyal to the militant cleric Moqtada Sadr on Saturday surged into the Baghdad square where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled two years ago, demanding a timetable for the U.S. military's withdrawal from Iraq, release of their leaders jailed by American forces and a speedy trial for Hussein.
The protest, on the second anniversary of Hussein's fall, was one of the largest in Baghdad since the U.S. invasion. It drew Sadr's adherents from the sprawling Baghdad slum of Sadr City as well as from cities in southern Iraq. As much a show of strength as a declaration of grievances, the demonstration made clear that Sadr's followers remain a force even though they have largely boycotted the U.S.-backed political process. Sadr's militia fought American forces twice last year, but it has loosely abided by an informal truce that ended the fighting in August.
Iraqis protest on the second anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall in one of the largest demonstrations in Baghdad since the U.S. invasion. The rally was a show of force by loyalists to militant Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
(Ali Jasim -- Reuters)
The son of one of Iraq's most revered clerics, Sadr has cultivated a fervent following among young, poor Shiites. Unlike Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has the broadest support among the country's Shiite majority, Sadr has pronounced a stridently anti-occupation line and reached out to Sunni Muslims who oppose the American presence.
Beginning last week, Sadr's lieutenants called for the demonstration on the anniversary. Over the past two days, buses, trucks and cars ferried the men into the capital, where security forces closed off most downtown streets through the early afternoon. Many protesters arrived on foot, waving Iraqi flags and marching around Firdaus Square, where a U.S. Marine tank-recovery vehicle pulled down Hussein's statue April 9, 2003, while hundreds cheered.
The cheers Saturday were for Sadr, interspersed with denunciations of the United States, Israel and Hussein.
"No, no to the Americans," the crowd shouted. "Yes, yes to Islam."
"We're defending our country, our people, our sacred places and our beliefs," said Ali Abboud, a 21-year-old standing atop a fence and waving an Iraqi flag. "We have one set of beliefs and the Americans have another. We won't let them stay."
Men clad in the black of the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, stood atop columns that enclose the square, each of which was once inscribed with Hussein's initials. They waved the symbols that have become the icons of Sadr's movement: Iraqi flags, portraits of Sadr's father and religious banners pledging loyalty to Shiite saints. In the streets below, men and some veiled women marched in groups around the square, enunciating the demands that clerics had elaborated at Friday prayers a week before.
"Force the occupiers out of our country," one banner read. "Yes for Islam, yes for Iraq. No to occupation, no to terrorism," said another. Some held effigies of Hussein, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. At times, spilling into side streets, the crowd broke into chants denouncing haddam, or destructive, the nickname Sadr's followers use for Hussein.
"We want the occupation to end and the Americans to go back home," said Abid Salem, a 24-year-old from Sadr City.
Nearby, another protester voiced complaints not unlike those heard two years ago in the chaotic wake of Hussein's fall. "After two years of occupation, the process of government formation has been so slow," said Ali Abdallah, 36, a shop owner. "When will they be able to secure the country, to bring us electricity, water, health services and schools?"
As in mass protests this year in Lebanon, where the country's flag was the predominant symbol, Sadr's lieutenants had urged protesters to carry only Iraqi flags.
In addition to demands for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, the release of Sadr's lieutenants and a speedy trial of Hussein, the speaker at the protest, Moayed Khazraji, added another: Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, should no longer be a day off.
Sadr's followers had predicted a million people would turn out, but the actual number, while substantial, fell short. The crowd appeared to be overwhelmingly Shiite, despite a call by a leading Sunni cleric in Baghdad for his followers to join protests.
About 1,500 Sunni Muslims did gather in Ramadi, a restive town in western Iraq, to demand U.S. withdrawal. One banner there read, "Leave our land. We want to govern ourselves by ourselves."
"We want them to leave and, by the will of God, they can visit us next year as visitors to our country, but not like soldiers who order and govern," said Saadoun Ali, one of the organizers of the demonstration.
More bloodshed was reported Saturday. Al-Jazeera television broadcast footage of what it said were the bodies of five Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes. The station said they had been captured in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.
In Mosul, a car bomb detonated near an office of one of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties after an American convoy, the apparent target, passed. Two Iraqi civilians were killed and 12 others were wounded, officials at the city's Jumhuri hospital said.
News agencies reported that the newly appointed police chief in Haditha, a town west of Ramadi, was assassinated Saturday after he left a meeting with U.S. troops.
Also on Saturday, a Pakistani diplomat was missing after being last seen in Baghdad, the Reuters news agency reported.
Special correspondents Khalid Saffar and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.