NAJAF, Iraq -- Torching American flags and demanding that US troops leave Iraq, followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gathered by the thousands yesterday for a protest that marked the fourth anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall from power.
Shi'ite Muslims flocked to the shrine city of Najaf in a peaceful show of solidarity for Sadr, whose grass-roots movement has been squeezed by US and Iraqi forces since the start of the Baghdad security plan two months ago.
The young and once-obscure cleric has so far cooperated with the security crackdown, reining in his fighters in the capital. But with a militia of as many as 60,000 men, he has the ability to unleash a significant armed force against US-led troops in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Yesterday, his fighters were dressed in civilian clothes and not their trademark warrior black as they waved the Iraqi flag, joining with Shi'ite and Sunni clerics and ordinary citizens in voicing anger and frustration over the US government's record in Iraq since the 2003 invasion .
Sadr, who did not attend the protest and hasn't been seen in public in weeks, sought in a statement read to the crowd to present himself as a representative for all Iraqis, in a break from his fiercely sectarian image of the last two years.
"We live at this moment and so far 48 months of anxiety, oppression, and occupational tyranny have passed, four years which have only brought us more death, destruction, and humiliation," Sadr was quoted as saying. "Every day tens are martyred, tens are crippled, and every day we see and hear US interference in every aspect of our lives, which means that we are not sovereign, not independent and therefore not free.
"This is what Iraq has harvested from the US invasion."
Sadr presented his victory as just a matter of time. He credited the Mahdi Army with the decision of British forces to hand over most of Basra to the Iraqi security units, and noted the opposition to the Iraq war among some US lawmakers.
"It is in this historical moment that we direct our speech toward the American and European people, we are a people who love peace and independence and refuse to become slaves," Sadr's statement read. "We call upon the free people of the world to pressure their governments in order to put an end to the plight of the Iraqi people."
His adherents clogged the road to Najaf from the neighboring town of Kufa, pumping their fists in the air and shouting "yes to Iraq, yes to sovereignty, no to occupation." Some armed police officers joined in.
Their next move is a riddle, with Sadr giving mixed signals over whether he will continue to grudgingly back the government's Baghdad security plan or call for an open fight against the Americans, as well as Sunni militants.
A great debate has emerged over how much control Sadr exerts over his rank and file. Some of his officers have worried openly about breakaway factions and creeping Iranian influence.
Even Sadr's location is a mystery, but his vanishing has not cooled his followers' devotion. Faraj Atwani drove to Najaf in a convoy of three sedans from Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood and cursed the Americans.
"Today is the day of Iraqis' unity," Atwani said. "We came to say the occupation must leave. Their lies can no longer fool anybody."
"For their own interests, they besieged our cities and killed our children," he said. "I consider them looters because they only know the language of killing. We are the people of civilization and we only want stability for our country and not to see our houses' walls covered with black funeral banners."
There was little violence in Iraq yesterday, as bans on vehicle traffic shut down Baghdad and Najaf. However, one person was killed and three wounded in a mortar attack in the Shi'ite section of the Baghdad suburb of Dora, considered a haven of Sunni militants. Two Iraqi soldiers and an oil protection guard were killed in a bomb blast north of Basra, the Iraqi military said.
Nine unidentified bodies were found dumped in Baghdad yesterday and two corpses were found in Babil Province, south of the capital.
Colonel Steven Boylan, a US military spokesman and aide to General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, praised the peaceful demonstration and said Iraqis "could not have done this four years ago."
Iraqi soldiers in uniform joined the crowd of marchers which stretched for at least 3 miles and was led by a dozen turbaned clerics, a Sunni Muslim among them.
Brigadier 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.
The rally marked four years since US Marines and the Army's Third Infantry Division swept into the Iraqi capital 20 days into the American invasion.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.