BAGHDAD – Tens of thousands draped themselves in Iraqi flags and marched through the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall, with some demonstrators calling for U.S.-led forces to leave Iraq.
The rally was ordered by powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who a day earlier issued a statement ordering his militiamen to redouble their battle to oust American forces, and argued that Iraq's army and police should join him in defeating "your archenemy."
Demonstrators marched from Kufa to neighboring Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, with two cordons of Iraqi police lining the route.
Some at the rally waved small Iraqi flags; others hoisted up a giant flag 10 yards long. Leaflets fluttered through the breeze reading: "Yes, Yes to Iraq" and "Yes, Yes to Muqtada. Occupiers should leave Iraq."
"The enemy that is occupying our country is now targeting the dignity of the Iraqi people," said lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr's bloc in parliament, as he marched. "After four years of occupation, we have hundreds of thousands of people dead and wounded."
A senior official in al-Sadr's organization in Najaf, Salah al-Obaydi, called the rally a "call for liberation."
"We're hoping that by next year's anniversary, we will be an independent and liberated Iraq with full sovereignty," he said.
Al-Sadr did not attend the demonstration, and has not appeared in public for months. U.S. officials say he left Iraq for neighboring Iran after the Feb. 14 start of a Baghdad security crackdown, but his followers say he is in Iraq.
Iraqi soldiers in uniform joined the crowd, which was led by at least a dozen turbaned clerics — including one Sunni. Many marchers danced as they moved through the streets.
The demonstration ended without violence after about three hours, but two ambulances could be seen moving slowly with the marching crowd, poised to help if violence or stampedes broke out.
Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman and aide to the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, praised the peaceful nature of the demonstration, saying Iraqis "could not have done this four years ago."
"This is the right to assemble, the right to free speech — they didn't have that under the former regime," Boylan said. "This is progress, there's no two ways about it."
Monday's demonstration marks four years since U.S. Marines and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division swept into the Iraqi capital 20 days into the American invasion.
Cars were banned from Najaf for 24 hours starting from 8 p.m. Sunday, said police spokesman Col. Ali Jiryo. Buses idled at all entrances of the city to transport arriving demonstrators or other visitors to the city center. Najaf residents would be allowed to drive, he said.
Security was tight across Iraq, with a 24-hour ban on all vehicles in Baghdad starting from 5 a.m. Monday. The government quickly reinstated Monday as a holiday, just a day after it had decreed that April 9 no longer would be a day off.
In a statement distributed in Najaf on Sunday, al-Sadr called on Iraqi forces to stop cooperating with America.
"You, the Iraqi army and police forces, don't walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your archenemy," the statement said.
Al-Sadr, who commands an enormous following among Iraq's majority Shiites and has close allies in the Shiite-dominated government, urged his followers not to attack fellow Iraqis but to turn all their efforts on American forces.
"God has ordered you to be patient in front of your enemy, and unify your efforts against them — not against the sons of Iraq," it said.
Al-Sadr had reportedly ordered his militia to disarm and stay off the streets during a Baghdad security crackdown that began Feb. 14, though he has nevertheless issued a series of sharp anti-American statements, demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Sunday's statement was apparently issued in response to three days of clashes between his Mahdi Army militiamen and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.
American troops continued operations in Diwaniyah on Monday, detaining four guards at a the office of a Shiite political party and scouring two neighborhoods in the city's northern and eastern sections, police said. At least 24 suspects were detained, police said. U.S. officials had no immediate comment.
On Sunday, thousands of residents in Baghdad's largest Shiite slum, Sadr City, boarded buses and minivans bound for Najaf.
Iraqi flags flew from most houses and shops in Sadr City. Drivers and motorcyclists affixed them to their vehicles. Police escorted convoys of pickup trucks overflowing with young boys waving Iraqi flags, en route to Najaf.
Despite the curfews, violence persisted Monday. In southern Baghdad, a sniper killed a civilian and a policeman, and a mortar round killed one person and wounded two others, police said.
Police in Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, said clashes broke out between unknown gunmen and Al Qaeda fighters — leaving 30 people injured.
U.S. forces captured 14 suspects in raids across Iraq on Monday, targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq members and car bomb-makers, the military said in a statement.