- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of supporters of a militant Shi’ite cleric filled central Baghdad’s streets yesterday 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 Shi’ite cleric Sheik 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.

Tens of thousands of 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 former dictator Saddam Hussein’s statue once stood.

The protest marked a return to the limelight for Sheik 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. He has stayed close to his home in the holy city of Najaf since the U.S.-led assault on his militia in August.

No major violence was reported during yesterday’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 Mr. Bush and Saddam. Three effigies representing Saddam, Mr. 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.

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

The Shi’ite protesters called for a jailed Saddam to face justice, holding up framed photos of Sheik al-Sadr’s father, a prominent cleric executed by the ousted Iraqi leader’s regime.

Sheik al-Sadr — whose supporters are largely impoverished, young Shi’ites — 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-Husseini al-Sistani, the country’s most revered Shi’ite cleric.

Shi’ites 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 Shi’ite Arab Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its prime minister Thursday.

Sunni Muslim clerics also called on their followers to protest yesterday, 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.

Sheik Harth Al-Dhari, the secretary-general of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, praised both the al-Sadr protest as well as the Sunni demonstration, telling Al Jazeera satellite television: “We hail the demonstrations organized by the Iraqi people on the second black anniversary of their country’s occupation.”

Also, a car bomb detonated near a police patrol in Mosul, killing at least two policemen and injuring 13 civilians, Dr. Baha al-Deen al-Bakry of the Jumhouri hospital said.

Brig. Gen. Watheq Ali, deputy police chief of the Nineveh province, said the blast was an assassination attempt against him, although he was unhurt. He said a suicide car bomber rammed a car into the rear vehicle in his seven-car police convoy while it was stopped at a traffic light.

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