BAGHDAD, Iraq – 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, the capital, exactly two years ago.
The peaceful demonstration by angry young followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-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 call for a deadline for troop withdrawal.
At the same time, the fact that so many protesters were able to gather and freely 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 of protesters. “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 city. 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.
“The American people need to know that they can’t suppress us anymore, even with all their strength and power,” said Mohammed Salih Khalaf, 54, a 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 al-Sadr and his revered father, Mohammed al-Sadr, who was assassinated during the Hussein regime. 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 Amara, 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 deadline or timetable, which they say depends upon 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 people in the crowd expressed support for the United States 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.
Iraqis burn an American flag during a mass demonstration in Baghdad on Saturday.