Shiite Demonstrators Mark 4th Anniversary Of Baghdad's Fall

Monday, April 9th 2007, 7:22 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD (AP) _ 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!''

Some marchers strode along trying to rip apart an American flag; others marched across an American flag rug flung across the road.

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 national 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.''

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.

``The enemy that is occupying our country is now targeting the dignity of the Iraqi people,'' Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr's bloc in parliament, told an interviewer 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.''

Al-Sadr did not attend the demonstration, and has not appeared in public for months. U.S. officials say he left Iraq for neighboring Iran after the Feb. 14 start of a Baghdad security crackdown, but his followers say he is in Iraq.

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.

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.''

Monday's demonstration marks four years since U.S. Marines and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division swept into the Iraqi capital 20 days into the American invasion.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday that ``mistakes were made'' after Saddam Hussein's regime was ousted four years ago.

``The main mistake was a vacuum left in the fields of security and politics, and second mistake was how liberating forces became occupation forces,'' Zebari told Al-Arabiyah television.

In a statement distributed in Najaf on Sunday, al-Sadr called on Iraqi forces to stop cooperating with America.

``You, the Iraqi army and police forces, don't walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your archenemy,'' the statement said.

Al-Sadr, who commands an enormous following among Iraq's majority Shiites and has close allies in the Shiite-dominated government, urged his followers not to attack fellow Iraqis but to turn all their efforts on American forces.

``God has ordered you to be patient in front of your enemy, and unify your efforts against them _ not against the sons of Iraq,'' said the statement from al-Sadr, who has repeatedly called for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

Both the House and Senate have passed bills providing money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan _ and including timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces. President Bush has spoken out against a deadline, saying it would send mixed signals about the U.S. commitment.

Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman, said the protests were a sign of Iraqi democracy at work.

``Iraq, four years on, is now a place where people can freely gather and express their opinions,'' Johndroe said aboard Air Force One. ``And while we have much more progress ahead of us _ the United States, the coalition and Iraqis have much more to do _ this is a country that has come a long way from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.''

Al-Sadr had reportedly ordered his militia to disarm and stay off the streets during the Baghdad crackdown, though he has nevertheless issued a series of sharp anti-American statements, demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sunday's statement was apparently issued in response to three days of clashes between his Mahdi Army militiamen and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.

A U.S. soldier was killed there Sunday, Col. Michael Garrett, with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, told reporters in Diwaniyah on Monday as American troops continued operations.