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Tens of Thousands of Iraqis Protest US Occupation

On anniversary of fall of Baghdad, supporters of radical cleric demand U.S. military pullout

Boston Globe 4/9/2005 05:42

By Antonio Castaneda, Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) Tens of thousands of Shiites marked the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad with a protest against American troops at the same square where jubilant crowds toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein two years ago [photo of demonstration]

The protesters back radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militiamen led uprisings last year against U.S. troops before signing truces with U.S.-led forces.

Protest Called by Shiite and Sunni Clerics -- SMPA Editor

Held in the shadow of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels home to foreign journalists and contractors the protest reflected frustration both with the U.S. government, which is slowly handing security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, 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 protester Ahmed Abed, a 26-year-old who sells spare car parts.

U.S. officials have said they won't set a timetable for withdrawal, promising to stay until Iraqi forces are able to secure the country.

The protesters filled Firdos Square 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 in red Iraqi prison jumpsuits that signified they had been condemned to death.

Other effigies of Bush and Saddam were burned.

''Force the occupation to leave from our country,'' one banner read in English.

Protesters also called for Saddam to face justice and held up framed photos of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, a spiritual leader to the Shiite population of roughly 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.

Demonstrators carried a symbolic coffin, draped with an Iraqi flag, and swung from a statue said to represent freedom and constructed on the pedestal where Saddam's statue once stood. 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.

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.

Associated Press reporters Qasim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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