BAGHDAD (AFP) – Thousands of supporters of the anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Thursday protested the occupation of Iraq, six years after the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue symbolised the fall of his regime.
Crowds lined the streets leading to Firdos Square in Baghdad, where Saddam’s giant bronze sculpture was wrestled to the ground with the help of US Marines in 2003, an iconic image that signalled the end of his dictatorial rule.
Many of the demonstrators chanted “No no America, Yes Yes Iraq” as others carried placards adorned with pictures of Sadr, the radical Shiite leader who became a key figure and symbol of resistance after the US-led invasion.
Some of the protestors waded through mud to reach the head of the procession after Baghdad was hit by a rare bout of rain, which peaked during the morning demonstration.
Many of those gathered had camped out overnight or sheltered in nearby mosques, having travelled to the capital from Iraq’s mainly Shiite south.
“I came yesterday with about 500 of my friends to demonstrate against the occupation and demand its end and to call for the unity of the Iraqi people,” said Raad Saghir, 28, from Kut, 175 kilometres (110 miles) south of Baghdad.
The sixth anniversary of the US-led coalition’s invasion on March 20 saw Sadr supporters use that day’s Friday prayers to call for an end to the occupation. But Thursday’s protest was bigger in scale.
The red, white and black colours of the Iraqi flag were prominent as thousands of people swarmed the streets in a crowd that stretched back hundreds of metres (yards).
“I came yesterday morning with about 100 Basra residents, to reject the occupation and ask for their withdrawal,” said Raad Muhsin, an unemployed 28-year-old from Iraq’s southern port city.
Sadr, currently believed to be in Iran, founded the feared Mahdi Army militia after Saddam’s fall, which was accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis during the 2006 sectarian conflict that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.
His movement, which draws broad support from poorer Shiites, has long been a staunch opponent of the US-led military presence in Iraq.
After prolonged unrest which reputedly culminated in fierce firefights in the shrine city of Karbala in August 2007, Sadr suspended militia activities for six months, a halt that was later extended.
But his miltia came under a severe crackdown from Iraqi forces in March, April and May 2008, in which hundreds of people were killed, prompting Sadr to declare a ceasefire after taking severe losses.
Under a security agreement signed between Washington and Baghdad last November during president George W. Bush’s tenure, US troops will withdraw from towns and cities by June 30 and from the whole country by the end of 2011.
New US President Barack Obama, however, used a visit to Baghdad on Tuesday to say that Iraq would soon have to defend itself, as the US troop contingent of about 140,000 begins to draw down its numbers ahead of a total pullout.
Obama met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at a US airbase outside the capital, and he promised to pull American troops out of the country as planned.
“We are strongly committed to an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant,” the president said.
In February, Obama announced a new strategy that will see most combat troops withdraw from Iraq by August 2010, although a force of up to 50,000 will remain until the end of the following year.
Security has improved dramatically since 2007 when Iraqi and US forces launched offensives against Al-Qaeda militants with the help of local US-financed and trained Sahwa “Awakening” militias, also known as Sons of Iraq.
But insurgents are still able to strike with deadly results. A total of 252 Iraqis were killed in violence in March, almost the same tally as the previous month but up from January, when 191 Iraqis died in unrest.
Attacks in Baghdad on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday have seen at least 49 people die and 182 wounded.