Los Angeles Times
April 10, 2005
BAGHDAD — Chanting "Death to America!" and burning effigies of President Bush and Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Iraqis flooded central Baghdad on Saturday in what police called the largest anti-American protest since the fall of Baghdad exactly two years ago.
The peaceful demonstration by followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr underscored the United States' accomplishments and its failures since the end of the war.
Once staunch supporters of the U.S. invasion to oust the dictator who ruthlessly suppressed them, many Shiite Arabs in Iraq have grown so frustrated by the lingering military occupation, with its checkpoints, raids and use of force, that they took to the streets to demand a deadline for the withdrawal of troops.
At the same time, the fact that so many protesters were able to gather and voice their opinions without bloodshed or insurgent attacks suggests Iraq is making progress toward establishing a democratic system and creating a strong security force.
"This is the first manifestation of freedom in Iraq," said Lt. Ali Muhsin of the Iraqi national guard, raising his voice to be heard over the din. "We have never witnessed such a thing before. In the old days, people would only have been able to do this if they were hailing Saddam. Now they are protesting for their rights."
Carrying banners that read "Go Out" and "Leave Our Country," marchers hit the streets early Saturday, blocking roads and causing traffic jams around the capital. Most of the protesters came from the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, but busloads arrived from Kut, Amarah, Baqubah and other cities. Some estimates put the number of protesters at 300,000.
By 11 a.m., the massive but orderly demonstration assembled in Firdos Square, where on April 9, 2003, several hundred Iraqis — with the help of U.S. forces — toppled Hussein's statue in a now-famous gesture.
"The American people need to know that they can't suppress us anymore, even with all their strength and power," said Mohammed Salih Khalaf, a 54-year-old day laborer from Sadr City.
Raising fists and shouting in unison, protesters chanted, "No, no to America! No, no to occupation!" Many waved Iraqi flags and carried pictures of Sadr and his revered father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, who was assassinated during Hussein's rule. One protester dragged a picture of Hussein through the gutter. A few Iraqi police officers observing the scene raised their own fists in unity.
Munaf Abbas, 25, a chemical engineer from the southern city of Amarah, blamed the presence of U.S. troops for rising violence in Iraq.
"America is the mother of terrorism," he said. "All the explosions are happening because they are here."
U.S. officials have said they hope to withdraw troops soon but are reluctant to set a timetable, which they say would depend on the ability of Iraq's security forces to keep the peace.
Members of Iraq's newly elected government plan to raise the issue in the National Assembly, which meets again today.
Despite the anti-American slogans, some in the crowd expressed support for the U.S. and ambivalence about the occupation.
"I came here today to mark the fall of the tyrant Saddam and to call for his execution," said Mohammed Abdul Hussein, 42, an anesthesiologist now working as a salesman. "We deeply thank all the people, including the Americans, who helped us get rid of him."
Nadhum Jaffer, 31, an unemployed surveyor, worried that a U.S. withdrawal would leave Iraq vulnerable to sectarian violence and foreign interference.
"If the Americans left immediately, everything would be a mess," Jaffer said.
But Fatah Sheik, one of about two dozen Assembly members who support Muqtada Sadr and participated in Saturday's demonstration, said, "Today's protest proves that Iraqis are able to maintain security by themselves, without an American presence."
U.S. troops kept a low profile, leaving oversight to several hundred Iraqi police and national guard members. With the exception of a military unit that protects the Palestine and Ishtar hotel complex, U.S. soldiers and tanks remained out of view, watching through binoculars from rooftops and helicopters.
Several times during the protest, thousands of marchers stopped in front of the hotels, raising their fists and directing chants at the soldiers in the complex.
At times, the demonstration appeared aimed directly at a U.S. audience. Scores of banners were printed in English. A statement by Sadr, also in English, was read over a loudspeaker.
U.S. military officials praised the performance of the Iraqi security forces.
"That you were able to see a group of people exercising their right to free speech is all part of what we're here for," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylon, a military spokesman.
For Sadr, a thirtysomething cleric who is wildly popular among disenfranchised young men, the demonstration was an opportunity to remind U.S. and Iraqi officials of his political clout. Sadr loyalists are negotiating for a stronger role in the new government, which is scheduled to be announced within the next two weeks.
"He feels it's time to show up again and remind people that he's there," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "He's saying: 'Here I am. I want to have my share.' "
Sadr's Al Mahdi militia battled U.S. troops in several bloody clashes last year in the holy city of Najaf and in Sadr City, which is named for his father. After U.S. officials shuttered Sadr's newspaper last spring, the cleric launched a string of protests that tapped into anti-American sentiment nationwide and fueled a series of rebellions throughout southern Iraq.
In the summer, he agreed to disarm the militia, but there have been reports that he is trying to reorganize it.
Hundreds of former militia members, who showed up for Saturday's protest in yellow shirts but without weapons, helped provide security and crowd control.
Many said they would not hesitate to resume fighting if Sadr called.
"With just one word" from the cleric, said Qasim Mohammed, 36, of Sadr City, "we are ready to sacrifice our souls."