BAGHDAD -- Tens of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims loyal to militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr surged yesterday into the Baghdad square where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled two years ago, demanding a timetable for the US military's withdrawal from Iraq, release of their leaders jailed by American forces, and a speedy trial for Hussein.
The protest, on the second anniversary of Hussein's fall, was one of the largest in Baghdad since the US invasion. It drew Sadr's adherents from the sprawling Baghdad slum of Sadr City as well as from cities in southern Iraq. As much a show of strength as a declaration of grievances, the demonstration made clear that Sadr's followers remain a force even though they have largely boycotted the US-backed political process. Sadr's militia twice fought US forces last year, but it has loosely abided by an informal truce that ended the fighting in August.
The son of one of Iraq's most revered clerics, Sadr has cultivated a fervent following among young, poor Shi'ites. Unlike Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has the broadest support among the country's Shi'ite majority, Sadr has declared a stridently antioccupation line and has reached out to Sunni Muslims who oppose the American presence.
Beginning last week, Sadr's lieutenants called for the demonstration on the anniversary. Over the past two days, buses, trucks, and cars ferried the men into the capital, where security forces closed off most downtown streets through the early afternoon. Many protesters arrived on foot, waving Iraqi flags and marching around Firdos Square, where a US Marine tank-recovery vehicle pulled down Hussein's statue April 9, 2003, while hundreds cheered.
The cheers yesterday were for Sadr, interspersed with denunciations of the United States, Israel, and Hussein.
''No, no to the Americans," the crowd shouted. ''Yes, yes to Islam."
''We're defending our country, our people, our sacred places and our beliefs," said Ali Abboud, 21, standing atop a fence and waving an Iraqi flag. ''We have one set of beliefs and the Americans have another. We won't let them stay."
Men clad in the black of the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, stood atop columns that enclose the square, each of which was once inscribed with Hussein's initials. They waved the symbols that have become the icons of Sadr's movement: Iraqi flags, portraits of Sadr's father, and religious banners pledging loyalty to Shi'ite saints. In the streets below, men and some veiled women marched in groups around the square, enunciating the demands that clerics had elaborated at Friday prayers a week before.
''Force the occupiers out of our country," one banner read. ''Yes for Islam, yes for Iraq. No to occupation, no to terrorism," another said. Some held effigies of Hussein, President Bush, and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
''We want the occupation to end and the Americans to go back home," said Abid Salem, a 24-year-old from Sadr City.
Nearby, another protester voiced complaints not unlike those heard two years ago in the chaotic wake of Hussein's fall. ''After two years of occupation, the process of government formation has been so slow," said Ali Abdallah, 36, a shop owner. ''When will they be able to secure the country, to bring us electricity, water, health services, and schools?"
As in mass protests this year in Lebanon, where the country's flag was the predominant symbol, Sadr's lieutenants had urged protesters to carry only Iraqi flags.
In addition to demands for a timetable for US withdrawal, the release of Sadr's lieutenants, and a speedy trial of Hussein, the speaker at the protest, Moayed Khazraji, added another: Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, should no longer be a day off.
Sadr's followers had predicted 1 million people would turn out, but the number fell short. The crowd appeared to be overwhelmingly Shi'ite, despite a call by a leading Sunni cleric in Baghdad for his followers to join protests.
About 1,500 Sunni Muslims did gather in Ramadi, a restive town in western Iraq, to demand US withdrawal. ''We want them to leave and, by the will of God, they can visit us next year as visitors to our country, but not like soldiers who order and govern," said Saadoun Ali, a protest organizer.
In other developments, the US military said a soldier was killed in a roadside bomb blast north of Baghdad on Friday, raising to at least 1,543 the number of US troops who have died in Iraq.
The bodies of 15 Iraqi soldiers were found in the lawless area just south of Baghdad, Iraqi police said. Police said the soldiers were in a truck stopped by insurgents the previous day. All had been shot. In Mosul, northern Iraq, a suicide car bomber killed two policemen and a child, and wounded several people, police said.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.