BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of followers of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr thronged Baghdad on Thursday to mark the sixth anniversary of the city’s fall to U.S. troops, and to demand they leave immediately.
“Down, down USA,” the demonstrators chanted as a Ali al-Marwani, a Sadrist official, denounced the U.S. occupation of Iraq that began with the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square.
The crowds of Sadr supporters stretched from the giant Sadr City slum in northeast Baghdad to the square around 5 km (3 miles) away.
Protesters burned an effigy featuring the face of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and also the face of Saddam.
Shi’ites were brutally persecuted under Saddam, who was executed to chants of Sadr’s name in 2006.
“God, unite us, return our riches, free the prisoners from the prisons, return sovereignty to our country ... make our country free from the occupier, and prevent the occupier from stealing our oil,” Sadr said in a message read by a Sadr movement aide Asaad al-Nassiri.
“God, make us the liberators of our land,” the message said, drawing roars of approval from the crowd, many clutching or wearing Iraqi flags, and some wearing Iraqi national team tracksuits in a show of nationalist sentiment.
Hammering home the nationalist message, Nassiri exhorted the demonstrators to shake hands with each other and Iraqi police and soldiers overseeing the march. Long queues formed to kiss the police and troops on the cheeks and shake their hands.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who flew into Baghdad on an unannounced visit on Tuesday, has ordered U.S. combat troops to depart Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a residual force of up to 50,000 trainers, advisers and logistics personnel.
Under a bilateral security agreement signed with Bush, all U.S. troops must withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Many at the demonstration did not trust the United States to live up to the commitment to withdraw.
“Iraq has experience of occupation ... No country has emerged from it through politics and transparency. It will only end through the sword,” said demonstrator Khalid al-Ibadi, referring to uprisings against British and Ottoman rule of Iraq.
Sadr, scion of one of Iraq’s great Shi’ite religious dynasties, is believed to be in Iran studying religious law.
His Mehdi Army fighters fought pitched battles against U.S. forces during the bloody aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, but have since frozen armed operations after Sadr called on them to turn themselves into a social welfare organization.
The Sadr movement suffered a setback when Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered U.S.-backed Iraqi troops to crack down on its militia fighters in the southern oil hub of Basra and in Baghdad last year.
Analysts point to pressure on the Mehdi Army to return to arms, and have speculated splinter groups may already have.
“There’s still a noble uprising, there’s no freeze,” said demonstrator Abu Hijran Qassim, wearing an Iraqi flag as a shirt.
Editing by Michael Christie and Richard Balmforth