- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of Shi’ites — a sea of women in black abayas and men waving Iraqi flags — rallied yesterday to demand that U.S. forces leave their country. Some ripped apart American flags and tromped across a Stars and Stripes rug.

The protesters, including some Iraqi soldiers in uniform, marched about three miles between the holy cities of Kufa and Najaf to mark the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. In the capital, streets were silent and empty under a hastily imposed 24-hour driving ban.

Radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered the march as a show of strength to Washington and to Iraq’s establishment Shi’ite ayatollahs.

Sheik al-Sadr, who disappointed followers hoping he might appear after months in seclusion, has pounded his anti-American theme in a series of written statements. The most recent statement was released Sunday, when the cleric called on his Mahdi Army militia to redouble efforts to expel U.S. forces and for the police and army to join the struggle against “your archenemy.”

Sheik al-Sadr dropped from view before the start of the latest Baghdad security operation on Feb. 14. U.S. officials say he is holed up in Iran. His followers insist he has returned to Najaf.

Fearing suicide attacks, car bombings or other mayhem in the capital, Iraq’s generals ordered all vehicles off the streets for 24 hours starting at 5 a.m. yesterday, a workday. The capital was eerily quiet, shops were shuttered and locked, and reports of sectarian violence fell to near zero.

Police and morgue officials reported finding seven bodies dumped in the capital, the second time the number of sectarian assassination and torture victims had dipped that low during the Baghdad security operation. Twenty-five persons were killed or found dead in the country yesterday, according to police and morgue reports.

A double line of police cordoned the marchers’ route from Kufa to Najaf, sister cities along the Euphrates River. The holy places, 100 miles south of Baghdad, are a prime destination for Shi’ite pilgrims.

Among the snapping flags and giant banners, leaflets fluttered to the ground, exhorting the marchers in chants of “Yes, yes to Iraq” and “Yes, yes to Muqtada. Occupiers should leave Iraq.”

Salah al-Obaydi, a senior official in Sheik al-Sadr’s Najaf organization, called the rally a “call for liberation. We’re hoping that by next year’s anniversary, we will be an independent and liberated Iraq with full sovereignty.”

The head of Sheik al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc, Nassar al-Rubaie, blasted the U.S. presence as an affront to “the dignity of the Iraqi people.”

A key Washington official saw it differently.

“Iraq, four years on, is now a place where people can freely gather and express their opinions,” Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman, said aboard Air Force One.

Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman and aide to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, praised the peaceful demonstration and said Iraqis “could not have done this four years ago.”

While Sheik al-Sadr ordered his militia to disarm and stay off the streets during the Baghdad crackdown, he notched up his anti-American rhetoric in three brief but hostile statements demanding the departure of U.S. troops.

“You, the Iraqi army and police forces, don’t walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your archenemy,” he wrote, apparently referring to three days of clashes between his Mahdi Army militiamen and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.

A U.S. soldier was killed there Sunday, said Col. Michael Garrett with the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division. Police in Diwaniyah said the toll since the start of the operation Friday was 14 dead and 47 wounded.

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