Tens of Thousands Protest U.S. Occupation in Baghdad

From Holden:

U.S. Forces have overstayed a welcome they never had.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis marked the second anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein on Saturday by marching here in the capital to demand the withdrawal of American forces. Meanwhile, one of the most lethal insurgent groups threatened Iraqis if they joined the country’s army and police force.

Most of the protesters were followers of Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric who has led several armed uprisings against American forces but who has recently begun to participate in democratic politics.

The demonstrators gathered at Firdos Square in central Baghdad, where American troops and Iraqis pulled down a huge statue of Mr. Hussein on April 9, 2003, in a moment that defined the fall of Baghdad.

The marchers echoed the demands by Mr. Sadr and the Sunni clerics: a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces and the release of Iraqi detainees from American-supervised prisons. Banners held aloft during the march also called for a rapid trial for Mr. Hussein and the elevation of Islam as the official religion of Iraq.

Demonstrators held up large photographs of Mr. Hussein that were taken after his capture, showing the former dictator looking shaggy and old. The marchers also burned large photos of President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

“We are asking that the occupier leave our country,” said Amer Shihab, a university student who had come from Kut in southern Iraq. “Iraq now has enough competent forces to maintain security by itself.”

The demonstration illustrated the ability of Mr. Sadr to mobilize his followers peacefully, with thousands of demonstrators traveling by bus from southern cities and staying overnight in the homes of their allies in Sadr City, the impoverished district that is named for Mr. Sadr’s father and that forms the heart of his support.

Other disaffected groups used the occasion Saturday to denounce the American military presence in Iraq. One was the Iraqi Islamic Party, a predominantly Sunni Muslim party that decided to boycott the elections on Jan. 30 after being threatened by the insurgents. Since then, the party has flirted with taking part in the political process, but has not done so.

In a statement, the Islamic Party blamed the United States for the chaos and destruction that followed the collapse of Mr. Hussein’s rule. Since then, the statement said, the presence of American forces in the country has brought only misery to the country.

“The 9th of April is a day in which one tyrant fell so that another occupying tyrant could take his place,” the statement said.

Juan Cole has some breathless details.