Shiites protest by the thousands in Baghdad

Followers of radical anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr march through the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, Monday, on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. The Associated Press

AP

Followers of radical anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr march through the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, Monday, on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. The Associated Press

By The Associated Press

By LAUREN FRAYER

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD – Tens of thousands draped themselves in Iraqi flags and marched peacefully through the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall. Demonstrators were flanked by two cordons of police as they called for U.S. forces to leave, shouting “Get out, get out occupier!”

Security was tight across Iraq, with a 24-hour ban on all vehicles in Baghdad starting from 5 a.m. Monday. The government quickly reinstated the day as a holiday, rescinding its weekend order that had decreed that April 9 no longer would be a day off.

The Najaf rally was ordered by Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who a day earlier issued a statement ordering his militiamen to redouble their battle to oust American forces, and argued that Iraq’s army and police should join him in defeating “your archenemy.”

Demonstrators marched from Kufa to neighboring Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Those marching were overwhelmingly Shiite, but Sunnis – who are believed to make up the heart of Iraq’s insurgency – have also called for an American withdrawal.

Some at the rally waved small Iraqi flags; others hoisted a giant flag 10 yards long. Leaflets fluttered through the breeze reading: “Yes, Yes to Iraq” and “Yes, Yes to Muqtada. Occupiers should leave Iraq.”

“The enemy that is occupying our country is now targeting the dignity of the Iraqi people,” said lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr’s bloc in parliament, as he marched. “After four years of occupation, we have hundreds of thousands of people dead and wounded.”

A senior official in al-Sadr’s organization in Najaf, Salah al-Obaydi, 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,” he said.

Iraqi soldiers in uniform joined the crowd, which was led by at least a dozen turbaned clerics _ including one Sunni. Many marchers danced as they moved through the streets.

The demonstration ended without violence after about three hours, but two ambulances could be seen moving slowly with the marching crowd, poised to help if violence or stampedes broke out.

Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman and aide to the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, praised the peaceful nature of the demonstration, saying Iraqis “could not have done this four years ago.”

“This is the right to assemble, the right to free speech – they didn’t have that under the former regime,” Boylan said. “This is progress, there’s no two ways about it.”