Iraqi protesters call for U.S. pullout
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Tens of thousands of supporters of a militant Shiite cleric filled central Baghdad’s streets Saturday and demanded that American soldiers go home, marking the second anniversary of Baghdad’s fall with shouts of “No, no to Satan!”
To the west of the capital, 5,000 protesters issued similar demands in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi, reflecting a growing impatience with the U.S.-led occupation and the slow pace of returning control to an infant Iraqi government.
The protest in Baghdad’s famous Firdos Square was the largest anti-American demonstration since the U.S.-led invasion, but the turnout was far less than the 1 million called for by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
“I do not accept having occupation forces in my country,” said protester Ali Feleih Hassan, 35. “No one accepts this. I want them out. They have been here for two years, and now they have to set a timetable for their withdrawal.”
President Bush has said he will not pull troops out of Iraq until the security situation has improved.
People spilled into the streets of central Baghdad, waving Iraqi flags and climbing onto an abstract sculpture said to represent freedom and built on the spot where Saddam Hussein’s statue once stood.
The protest marked a return to the limelight for al-Sadr, who had been relatively quiet since his Mahdi Army militiamen signed truces last year with U.S.-led forces after deadly clashes. Officials said the cleric did not attend because of security concerns.
No major violence was reported during Saturday’s demonstration, which the Iraqi Interior Ministry agreed to protect. U.S. soldiers kept watch from behind concrete-and-barbed wire barriers.
Mahdi Army militiamen searched people entering the demonstration area as Iraqi policemen stood to the side.
Protesters burned the U.S. flag as well as cardboard cutouts of Bush and Saddam. Three effigies representing Saddam, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair – all handcuffed and dressed in red Iraqi prison jumpsuits that signified they had been condemned to death – were placed on a pedestal, then symbolically toppled like the Saddam statue two years before.
Others acted out reports of prison abuse at the hands of American soldiers. Photos released last year showing U.S. soldiers piling naked inmates in a pyramid at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison have tarnished the military’s reputation both here and around the world.
The Shiite protesters called for a jailed Saddam to face justice, holding up framed photos of al-Sadr’s father, a prominent cleric executed by the ousted Iraqi leader’s regime.
Al-Sadr – whose supporters are largely impoverished, young Shiites – was once wanted by U.S. forces after he urged his militia to fight American troops. Despite his popularity in some parts of Iraqi society, he has fewer followers than Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most revered Shiite cleric.
Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million people but were targeted under Saddam. Thousands were killed by Iraqi security forces.
They have risen to power in Iraq’s new interim government, which named Shiite Arab Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its prime minister Thursday.
Sunni Muslim clerics also called on their followers to protest Saturday, and a large crowd gathered in the central city of Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold.
Iraq’s Sunni minority was dominant under Saddam and is believed to make up the backbone of the country’s insurgency.
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