BAGHDAD, Iraq – Tens of thousands of Shiites (search) marked the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad (search) with a protest against the American military presence at the square where Iraqis and U.S. troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein two years ago.
The protesters back Muqtada al-Sadr (search), a radical Shiite cleric whose militia led uprisings against U.S. troops last year, and their large numbers reflected frustration both with the U.S. government (search) and anger toward the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.
"This huge gathering shows that the Iraqi people have the strength and faith to protect their country and liberate it from the occupiers," said Ahmed Abed, a 26-year-old who sells spare car parts.
U.S. officials, who are slowly handing security to Iraqi forces, have refused to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying the troops will stay until Iraqi forces are able to secure the country.
The protesters filled Firdos Square (search) and spilled onto nearby avenues, waving Iraqi flags. Mimicking the famous images of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis pulling down a statue of Saddam as Baghdad fell, protesters toppled effigies of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Saddam — all dressed like Iraqi prisoners in red jumpsuits. Other effigies of Bush and Saddam were burned.
"Force the occupation to leave from our country," one banner read in English.
The Shiite protesters also called for the now-jailed Saddam to face justice, and they held up framed photos of al-Sadr's father, a prominent cleric executed by Saddam. Mahdi Army (search) militiamen searched people entering the demonstration area as Iraqi policemen stood to the side.
Al-Sadr officials said the cleric did not attend the protest because of security concerns. He has largely stayed close to his home in the holy city of Najaf since a U.S.-led assault on his militia in the city in August 2004.
Al-Sadr has wide support among impoverished and young Shiites but overall fewer followers than Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in the country.
Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, and thousands killed by Iraqi forces under Saddam.
Demonstrators swung from a statue said to represent freedom and constructed on the pedestal where Saddam's statue once stood. They also acted out examples of prison abuse widely reported after photos were released showing U.S. soldiers piling naked inmates in a pyramid at Abu Ghraib prison.
Robed and turbaned Shiite clerics were seen among the crowd.
No violence was reported, although late Friday a senior al-Sadr official who had arrived from Karbala to take part in the protest was gunned down in the New Baghdad neighborhood. Fadhil al-Shawky died in the attack on his car. Two others were wounded.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces kept a close eye on the march, with U.S. soldiers standing behind blast walls topped with barbed wire and armed soldiers watching from rooftops. The protest was held in the shadow of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, both of which have been home to foreign journalists and contractors.
Al-Sadr had stayed out of the limelight since leading failed uprisings last year in the southern city of Najaf and in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. But he has stepped up criticism of the United States in recent weeks, mainly by organizing Saturday's protest, which fell far short of the 1 million people he hoped would assemble.
Officials organized the demonstration with the Iraqi Interior Ministry's promise of protection. A group of protesters and police spent all night securing the square. Roads in central Baghdad were closed to traffic as streets filled with people.
Sunni Muslim clerics also called on their followers to protest on the two year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, but officials in the influential Association of Muslim Scholars refused to say Saturday where or when the protests would take place. Iraq's Sunni minority was dominant under Saddam and is believed to make up the backbone of the country's insurgency.
Jalil al-Shemari, a senior al-Sadr official, said the Sunnis would not be joining in the Shiite rally at Firdos Square.
During his Friday morning sermon in the capital, the head of an influential Sunni group accused coalition forces of "killing the Iraqi people daily."
"We demand that the occupation troops withdraw from Iraq. We don't want them to do it immediately, but we want them to set a timetable for their withdrawal," said Sheik Harith al-Dahri, whose Association of Muslim Scholars is believed to have ties to Iraq's insurgents.
Other marches were held across the country to demand that the United States set a timetable for its withdrawal. In the central city of Ramadi, thousands of protestors demonstrated in the al-Sufayaa neighborhood and at Anbar University, demanding that U.S.-led coalition forces set a withdrawal date.
Also Saturday, in the troubled northern city of Mosul, a car bomb detonated near a police patrol, killing at least two policemen and injuring 13 civilians, Dr. Baha al-Deen al-Bakry of the Jumhouri hospital said.
Brig. Gen. Watheq Ali, deputy police chief of the Nineveh province, said the blast was an assassination attempt against him, although he was unhurt. He said a suicide car bomber rammed a car into the rear vehicle in his seven-car police convoy as it was stopped at a traffic light.