Tens of thousands of supporters of an anti-American cleric burned an effigy of ex-President George W. Bush on Thursday and demanded that U.S. troops leave Iraq in a rally marking the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces.
Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Shiite militia fought U.S. troops intermittently until a cease-fire last May, had called on Iraqis to turn out for the protest at Firdous Square — where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled on April 9, 2003.
Protesters set fire to American flags and to Bush's effigy as it hung from the pillar where Saddam's statue once stood.
Nevertheless, the tone of the speeches seemed less hostile toward America than those at rallies during the Bush presidency, when Sadrist speakers would not refer to the U.S. leader as president.
"We demand that President Obama stand with the Iraqi people by ending the occupation to fulfill his promises he made to the world," al-Sadr aide Assad al-Nassiri told the crowd.
Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for the movement, said the slight change in tone — including the reference to Barack Obama as president — represented an overture to the new administration. Obama ran for the presidency as a staunch critic of the 2003 invasion.
"We see some change in Obama's language," al-Obeidi told The Associated Press. "It seems to us that Obama does not want to use Iraq as a base to fight al-Qaida."
Obama has pledged to remove all combat troops by September 2010 and the rest of the U.S. force by the end of 2011.
During a brief stop in Iraq on Tuesday, Obama told American troops at a base on the edge of Baghdad that Iraqis "need to take responsibility for their own country."
No to occupation
At the rally, al-Nassiri read a statement from al-Sadr, who lives in Iran, describing the U.S. military presence as a "crime against all Iraqis." Al-Sadr asked God to grant Iraqis a sovereign country "free from wicked occupation."
Protesters waved Iraqi banners and carried pictures of al-Sadr, chanting: "No, no occupation" and "Long live al-Sadr!" Huge Iraqi flags decorating the square hung drenched from the heavy rain that pelted the city Thursday morning.
Al-Sadr had called for a "march of the millions" but it appeared the crowd numbered no more than 30,000.
Al-Sadr suffered a setback last May when his Mahdi Army militia lost control of strongholds in Basra and the Sadr City district of Baghdad in weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Sadrist candidates still managed to win enough votes in January's provincial elections to gain a share of power in several Shiite-dominated provinces.
Security was tight for the rally. Police prevented vehicles from approaching the square in advance of the demonstration to guard against car bombings, which have killed at least 53 people in Baghdad this week.
U.S. soldiers were on standby to provide backup to Iraqi forces if needed.
Dozens of buses brought demonstrators from southern provinces where the Sadrists have a large number of supporters.
A new era?
One of the protesters, Ammar Mahdi, 23, said he walked five miles to join the rally to demand the "immediate withdrawal of the U.S. soldiers who brought destruction to Iraq instead of freedom."
The protest against the U.S. presence contrasted with the jubilation of six years ago, when crowds of Iraqis cheered as American Marines hauled down Saddam's statue marking the collapse of his regime.
But the years of violence, bloodshed and political turmoil that followed soured many Iraqis on the U.S. role, even though there is public unease over the capability of Iraqi forces to maintain security once the Americans have gone.
"I am among those who were glad when the former regime fell. We chanted and cheered," said Hashim Mohsen, a Baghdad schoolteacher who did not attend the rally. "We thought new loyal people were leading the country into a new, prosperous era. But regrettably, that is not what occurred."