"Saddam is a war criminal, not a POW … execute Saddam," the 5,000-strong crowd chanted. It was believed to be the first public demonstration in Iraq to demand death for Saddam since was captured by U.S. forces on Dec. 13.
Also Tuesday, a similar protest by hundreds of Shiites was held in the southern Shiite city of Najaf.
The rallies were far smaller than one Monday in which nearly 100,000 Shiites marched in the Iraqi capital to demand early, direct elections, rejecting a U.S. blueprint for handing over power on July 1 to an unelected Iraqi provisional government.
Faced with the growing Shiite opposition, the United States asked the United Nations on Monday to send a team to Iraq to see if elections could be held.
U.S. officials hope the team would conclude that early elections are not feasible and convince a top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, to drop his demand for speedy elections.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was considering the U.S. request.
In other developments:
The ex-envoy, Mohammed al-Douri, said democratic elections would be preferable to an appointed body no matter who wins — even if his Sunni Muslim minority, which held favor during Saddam's rule, is defeated by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.
Free elections should be held now, he said, "because the Iraqi people are really thirsty for democracy."
Such words may seem unusual coming from al-Douri, whose role as U.N. ambassador required that he defend Iraqi policies to the world. Saddam's government never held free elections and killed at least 300,000 Iraqis believed to oppose its rule. But al-Douri was not a hard-core member of Saddam's Baath Party and is not wanted by U.S. authorities.
And al Douri is not the only one calling for elections.
Iraq's Shiites, who are believed to comprise 60 percent the population but were brutally suppressed during Saddam's rule, have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the power transfer plan.
The plan calls for a provisional legislature to be selected by 18 regional caucuses, which in turn will pick a transitional government. Shiites fear it will deprive them of power again.
Much of the Shiite show of force has emerged after al-Sistani, the country's most prominent Shiite cleric, issued a public demand earlier this month for early elections.
Al-Sistani, 75, also wants an elected assembly to ratify security accords governing the presence of coalition troops after July 1 as well an interim constitution to take effect until a final charter can be drafted and ratified in 2005.
Under an agreement promulgated on Nov. 15, Iraqis won't have a direct vote until next year when they choose delegates to draft a permanent constitution. They will vote twice again in 2005, once to ratify the new constitution and again to elect a new assembly.
The United States says there isn't enough time to hold free and fair elections in such a short time because of the precarious security situation, the absence of an election law and the lack of voter rolls. But it also cannot afford to alienate a community that has so far generally avoided attacks on coalition forces like their Sunni countrymen.
U.S. officials and leaders of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council met with Annan on Monday to seek a solution to the deadlock.
Annan cautiously supported an American and Iraqi request that a U.N team study whether Iraq could have quick, direct elections for a transitional government.
But Annan said he first needed assurance the team will be safe, especially after Sunday's truck bombing outside the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters compound, which killed 31.
The secretary-general said he wanted more details on the mission, but he acknowledged the issue was urgent and said he hoped for a speedy decision.
"If we get it wrong at this stage, it'll be even more difficult and we may not even get to the next stage," he said. "So I think it is extremely important that we do whatever we can to assist."
Annan has repeatedly said he did not believe there was enough time for the direct vote before June 30.
In Baghdad, a statement by the demonstrators said Saddam should be tried by an Iraqi court for crimes against humanity. "We emphasize our rejection and condemnation of the unjust American decision" to term him a prisoner of war, it read.
POW status under the Geneva Conventions grants Saddam certain rights including freedom from coercion and a guarantee that he can be tried only by an international tribunal or the occupying power.
"Every good Muslim woman and every honest human being wants Saddam to be executed. How can America make him a POW?" asked Samira Hassan, 43, from Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of eastern Baghdad.