BAGHDAD, Iraq – Draped in Iraqi flags and chanting anti-American slogans, tens of thousands of Iraqis swept into the southern city of Najaf on the call of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to mark the fourth anniversary of the ouster of President Saddam Hussein, calling for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq.
“No, no to the occupier. Yes, yes, to Iraq,” they chanted, as demonstrators burned and ripped apart American flags. “Get out, get out occupation.”
Some carried signs that read: “Four hard years and Iraq is from bad to worse.”
The protesters were largely Shiite, but included Sunni politicians and clerics. As they walked along the Kufa-to-Najaf route, they held hands with black-turbaned Shiite clerics.
Others carried banners proclaiming their loyalties to al-Sadr. They had traveled by bus and cars, from Baghdad and Basra, to march peacefully, under heavy security, through the center of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites.
“We came today raising this flag, our flag, the flag of Iraq, as a show of unity,” said Ali Hamza, 26, from Sadr City, the cleric’s Baghdad stronghold. Hamza wore the trademark black uniform of the Mahdi Army, al-Sadr’s militia, and an Iraqi flag covered his back. “I would like to show the world we are united. We reject the occupation and we will fight the occupation.”
At Sadrain Square, Abdul Razaq al-Nadawi, an al-Sadr spokesman, declared to the crowd: “A few days ago the father of evil, Bush, went out and said: We are staying in Iraq until the mission is accomplished according to the authorization of the U.N. and the request of the Iraqi people. So what would you answer?”
“No, no, America. Get out, get out, occupier,” protesters yelled.
Brig. Abdul Kerim al-Mayahi, the Najaf police chief, said there were as many as 600,000 in the march, although other estimates were significantly lower. He said 30 lawmakers made the hike and there was no American troop presence except surveillance from helicopters hovering above.
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.
The protests came a day after al-Sadr, in a statement, called America “the great evil” and urged his militiamen and members of Iraq’s security forces to unite against the U.S. occupation. But he stopped short of calling for a violent uprising, which would almost certainly complicate current efforts to stabilize Iraq.
Fearing suicide attacks, car bombings or other mayhem in the capital, Iraq’s generals ordered all vehicles off the streets for 24 hours starting at 5 a.m. Monday, normally a work day. Baghdad was eerily quiet, and shops were shuttered and locked.
Police and morgue officials reported finding just seven bodies dumped in the capital, only the second time the number of sectarian assassination and torture victims had dipped that low in the course of the Baghdad security operation. A total of 25 people were killed or found dead in the country Monday, according to police and morgue reports.
Al-Sadr has ordered his fighters to stand down and not be provoked into battle as U.S. troops patrol and conduct security sweeps.
Monday, his men said they were itching to fight U.S. and Iraqi troops and that al-Sadr’s commands were the only thing stopping them. “We wish as much as the distance between heaven and earth,” said al-Kufi. “When he asks us to fight, we will fight and hope for martyrdom.”
Meanwhile, a defense official said Monday that the Pentagon is considering a plan to extend the tours of duty for up to 15,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq.
Defense officials are looking at the idea of a maximum 120-day extension for five active duty brigades that would otherwise come home in the coming months – four ground units and one aviation combat brigade totaling roughly 15,000 troops, the official said. The plan would have to be approved by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Also on Monday, officials said about 13,000 National Guard troops are receiving notice to prepare for possible deployment to Iraq, which would be 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.
The latest identifications reported by the U.S. military of personnel killed in Iraq:
Navy Chief Petty Officer Gregory J. Billiter, 36, Villa Hills, Ky.; Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Curtis R. Hall, 24, Burley, Idaho; and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph A. McSween, 26, Valdosta, Ga.; killed Friday in combat near Kirkuk; assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 11, Whidbey Island.
Army Pfc. Jay S. Cajimat, 20, Lahaina, Hawaii, died Friday in Baghdad of wounds suffered from a car bomb; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.
Army Capt. Anthony Palermo, 26, Brockton, Mass.; Army Spc. Ryan S. Dallam, 24, Norman, Okla.; and Army Pvt. Damian Lopez Rodriguez, Tucson, Ariz.; killed Friday in Baghdad when their vehicle struck an explosive; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Schweinfurt, Germany.
Army Pfc. Walter Freeman Jr., 20, Lancaster, Calif.; and Army Pfc. Derek A. Gibson, 20, Eustis, Fla.; killed Wednesday in Baghdad when their vehicle struck an explosive; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo.