| NAJAF, Iraq
NAJAF, Iraq Tens of thousands of people waving Iraqi flags staged a peaceful rally in the southern city of Najaf on Monday to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces, four years to the day after Baghdad fell to invading American troops.
The streets of the Iraqi capital itself were largely empty after authorities clamped a 24-hour ban on vehicles to prevent any insurgent attacks, especially car bombings.
The anniversary comes as Iraq's Shi'ite-led government is trying to avert full-scale civil war between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis who were dominant under Saddam Hussein. Sunni and Shi'ite clerics marched side by side in Najaf.
The protesters in Najaf were responding to a call by powerful anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who blames the March 2003 invasion for the country's woes and wants a timetable set for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Waving red, white and black Iraqi flags, marchers choked the 7 km long road between Najaf and neighboring Kufa and clogged streets leading to Sadrayn Square, the main rallying point. Many had come from Baghdad and Shi'ite towns and cities in the south.
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters travelling with President George W. Bush to Arizona from Texas:
"I note today that Sadr called for massive protests. I'm not sure that we've seen that, those numbers materialize and the numbers that he was seeking...
"But Iraq, four years on, is now a place where people can freely gather and express their opinions, and that was something they could not do under Saddam. And while we have much more progress ahead of us -- the United States, the coalition and Iraqis have much more to do -- this is a country that has come a long way from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," he said.
Sadr has kept out of sight since U.S. and Iraqi forces began a crackdown on violence in Baghdad and was not at the rally. The U.S. military says he is in Iran, but his aides insist he is still in Iraq, possibly Najaf.
His ability to muster such a large gathering was a signal to the Iraqi government and Washington that, despite his absence from public view, he is still a force to be reckoned with.
Reuters journalists estimated the size of the crowd at tens of thousands, while organizers said the number was far greater. The U.S. military said aerial surveillance pictures showed that 15,000 took part.
The young cleric, popular among Iraq's Shi'ite poor, led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 but has since become a major political player. His movement holds a quarter of the seats in the ruling Shi'ite Alliance.
Washington accuses his Mehdi Army militia of fuelling sectarian violence and says it is now the biggest threat to peace in Iraq, a charge Sadr denies.
Speaking against the backdrop of an Iraqi flag, a senior Sadrist, cleric Abdelhadi al-Mohammadawi, called on U.S. forces to leave. His speech was interrupted by periodic chants of "Leave, leave occupier!" and "No, no, to the occupation".
"We demand the exit of the occupier and withdrawal of the last American soldier and we also reject the existence of any kind of military bases," he said.
Bush has insisted U.S. troops will not leave until Iraqis can take over security and has repeatedly refused to set a timetable for withdrawal.
Iraq has a new U.S.-trained army, but its government is still heavily dependent on American firepower and logistical support to combat the Sunni insurgency. In November, the U.N. Security Council renewed the mandate of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq until the end of 2007.
"This protest is our demand for sovereignty because we will not stay quiet on the issue. The Iraqi government can handle everything and there is no need for the occupiers to remain and continue killing innocents," said Mohammed Hamza from Baghdad.
Four years ago, the world watched as Iraqis, helped by U.S. soldiers, toppled Saddam's 20-foot (six-meter) statue in Baghdad's central Firdous Square. A crowd trampled over what was left of the statue and danced for joy.
Saddam had vowed to defeat the invasion but his forces put up little resistance as U.S. troops thrust into his capital.
By then the war had cost 96 American dead, 30 British dead and unknown thousands of Iraqi military and civilian casualties.
Four years on, the tolls have soared to more than 3,270 U.S. soldiers killed, 140 British soldiers, 124 from other nations, and tens of thousands of Iraqis. Ten U.S. soldiers were killed at the weekend.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)