BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thousands of followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric who led an armed uprising against the U.S. forces last year, rallied in Firdaus Square on the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to call for a pullout of U.S. troops.
The protest was centered on the square that provided one of the most dramatic images from the first weeks of the war: the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein.
The al-Sadr cadres demonstrated their own mastery of images on Saturday, with street theater meant to conjure the abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers and contractors at Abu Ghraib, the prison west of the capital.
Men dressed in desert camouflage roughed up another in an orange jumpsuit, while flashing a thumbs-up sign. A man in a black hood and cloak, with electric wires dangling from his arms, mimicked one of the notorious photos taken of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
Young men wearing the black uniform of the Mahdi Army, al-Sadr's militia, marched alongside turbaned cleric in robes.
Their message boomed over loudspeakers: "America, listen to our voices, the voices of Iraqis from north to south, from Zakho to Basra. We warn you of Iraqi anger. An Iraqi is a bullet if he is impatient."
Protestors elsewhere—in Ramadi, in the Sunni heartland—marched to an American checkpoint to call for an end to checkpoints and curfews.
The naming of a government in the past week, including prominent Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari as interim prime minister, by the country's recently elected parliament did not seem to placate the al-Sadr demonstrators.
Mohamed Zubeidi, 35, a clerical student from Diyala, said that Iraqis could not fully trust any leaders chosen while U.S. troops are still on Iraqi soil.
"One brought by the occupiers is going to be weak," Zubeidi, a clerical student, said. "He can't do anything."
A sculpture of a green crescent moon today stands in the place of Saddam's statue. Marchers on Saturday unfurled a banner with an image of Muqtada al-Sadr's revered father, Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, executed by the former regime.
Despite the anti-American rhetoric of the demonstrators, several acknowledged new freedoms since Saddam's statue fell from its pedestal in Firdaus Square.
"Now the Sadr voice is heard," said Umm Saif, a resident of Sadr City, the Baghdad slum once known as Saddam City. "This is the difference. You see me now standing in the streets, and we can say no to the American occupation. This is something big for us."
Still, "we don't want our children to grow up with an occupation," said the 30-year old housewife, covered by a black burqa, her eyes the only part of her body peeking out. "We want to be an Islamic country."
Police, bracing for a million protestors and attacks by terrorists, had closed roads throughout the center of the city. But the numbers that al-Sadr's spokesmen had predicted and had tried to drum up from their pulpits did not materialize.
By contrast, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani last year was able to get nearly 100,000 Iraqis into the streets to press U.S. authorities for elections.
The only reported incident of violence this weekend took place before the demonstration.
A cleric from Karbala who traveled to Baghdad to participate in the protest was killed by gunmen Friday in a Baghdad neighborhood known as an insurgent hotbed. His coffin, hoisted on the shoulders of clerics, was part of the procession Saturday.
"If the Americans left Iraq, there will be no terrorism," said Abass Kadhum, 28, who traveled from Najaf for the demonstration. "Iraq could be a stable country."
A grizzled old man kneading green prayer beads between his fingers looked at the marchers filing past from his perch near a tea stall. He said he didn't see a point in their protest, except political posturing by al-Sadr.
"America won't leave Iraq," said Jassim Mohamed Ali, 74. "America will leave only when its interests are safe in Iraq."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Alaa al-Baldawy and a correspondent who could not be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ