Iraqi Shiites Hit Streets To Protest U.S.

NAJAF, IRAQ: Iraqi Shiite supporters of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr step on a US national flag during an anti-US rally, in the holy city of Najaf, 09 April 2007. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
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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!"

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 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."

Al-Sadr remains in hiding, but today, again, he proved that he commands an enormous following among Iraqs largest religious group, reports Martin Seemungal for CBS News.

Demonstrators marched from Kufa to neighboring Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. 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.

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

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

But elsewhere in Iraq, like in the southern city of Basra, people were out celebrating the anniversary but not in Baghdad. Officially, the anniversary of the liberation is a public holiday, but for security reasons, the Iraqi government ordered a 24-hour lockdown — the streets are empty and Baghdad is virtually a ghost town, Seemungal reports.

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

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.

The demonstration ended without violence after about three hours, but two ambulances could be seen moving slowly with the marching crowd, poised to help if violence or stampedes broke out.

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."

In other developments:

  • Some 13,000 National Guard troops are receiving notice to prepare for possible deployment to Iraq, making it the second tour for several thousand of them. The orders had been anticipated, but the specific units were not announced until Monday. They are the Army National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, based in Little Rock, Ark.; 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oklahoma City; the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Indianapolis; and the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Violence persisted Monday. In southern Baghdad, a sniper killed a civilian and a policeman, and a mortar round killed one person and wounded two others, police said. Police in Buritz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, said clashes broke out between unknown gunmen and al Qaeda fighters - leaving 30 people injured.
  • In a rueful reflection on what might have been, an Iraqi government insider details in 500 pages the U.S. occupation's "shocking" mismanagement of his country, a performance so bad, he writes, that by 2007 Iraqis had "turned their backs on their would-be liberators."
  • Senator John McCain says the House, the Senate and the majority of the American people are all wrong when it comes to Iraq. He set out to prove it last week by walking into the heart of Baghdad. What he said about security after that walk set off front page outrage in the media. In an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, McCain says he "misspoke" about security during his visit.