Sadr Rallies Thousands Against U.S.

BAGHDAD -- Tens of thousands draped themselves in Iraqi flags and marched through the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday to mark the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall, with some demonstrators calling for U.S.-led forces to leave Iraq.

The rally was ordered by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who one day earlier issued a statement ordering his militiamen to redouble their battle to oust U.S. forces, and argued that Iraq's army and police should join him in defeating "your archenemy."

On Monday, thousands of demonstrators marched from Kufa to neighboring Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad, with two cordons of Iraqi police lining the route.

Some at the rally waved small Iraqi flags; others hoisted up a giant flag 10 meters long. Leaflets fluttered through the breeze reading: "Yes, Yes to Iraq" and "Yes, Yes to Moqtada. Occupiers should leave Iraq."

One banner read: "Brothers Sunni and Shiite, this country would not be sold." Another: "Death to America."

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

A senior official in Sadr's organization in Najaf, Salah al-Obaydi, said the rally was 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.

Thirty members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group, traveled several hundred kilometers from Basra to attend the rally alongside Sadrists from their hometown.

"We came to join our brothers from Sadr's bloc, to reject the foreign occupation. We call on the Americans and other multinational forces to withdraw from Iraq," said Sunni sheik Alla Nasir.

The demonstration was peaceful, but two ambulances could be seen moving slowly with the marching crowd, in the event of violence or stampedes.

It ended without violence after about three hours.

Colonel Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman and aide to the commander of the 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."

Cars were banned from Najaf for 24 hours starting from 8 p.m. Sunday, a police spokesman said. 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 Monday as a holiday, just one day after it had decreed that April 9 would no longer be a day off.

Monday's demonstration marks four years since U.S. troops swept into the Iraqi capital, 20 days into the U.S.-led invasion.